Monday, October 29, 2012

Healthy Chocolate-hazelnut Paste

A reader expressed surprise that I had included what she thought was commercial chocolate-hazelnut paste in my avocado-chocolate pudding; please let me take this opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding with today’s recipe for a healthy alternative to Nutella.
First, a confession: as a child, I was a Nutella addict. Persuaded by advertisements like this one  that the sugary chocolate paste was an excellent source of energy for growing children, my mother bought a steady supply of the sweet confection and we ate it greedily, usually by the spoonful when no one was looking, but also at breakfast, spread on white toast.

(By the way, notice how the mom in the commercial talks about “multigrain toast,” “whole wheat waffles” and “simple, quality ingredients like hazelnuts”? I call that “health claim by association”: when you’re selling a less-than-healthy product, pair it with healthy ones and hope their health halo will extend to your sugary confection. Does Nutella make you “ready to tackle the day”? Yes, for about an hour before the likely blood-sugar crash… No to mention the long-term effects of eating nutrient-depleted sugar pastes on white bread, washed down with OJ year-in, year out… But I digress.)

It was only decades later, when I began to understand the connection between health and food, that I realized why spooning down Nutella was not a good idea. A look at the ingredients as posted on their U.S. website (1) sends shudders down my spine: they are listed (in this order) as “sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, reduced minerals whey (milk), lecithin as emulsifier (soy), vanillin: an artificial flavor.”
Hazelnuts in third place — that doesn’t sound so bad, you say? No, it doesn’t – until you realize that third place comes a loooong way after sugar (which accounts for 54.4% of the paste) and palm oil (30.3%), leaving only a measly 15% for hazelnuts, milk and cocoa (2). Oh, and artificial flavoring.

Nutella packs in 200 calories per two-tablespoon serving. I’m no calorie-phobe, but when fast-developing children regularly eat 200 calories that are entirely devoid of nutritional value, that’s a disaster. This is not to say that we can’t occasionally indulge in a teaspoon of Nutella at a hotel or when visiting a Nutella-eater’s house, but let’s try not to bring it into our homes, because once it’s there, it’s hard to stop at two tablespoons…

Especially when we can make our own vastly more nutritious (and, I would argue, more delicious) Nutella replacement!

The following recipe, taken from my book Zest for Life, is inspired by Nutella (even I can’t deny that hazelnuts and chocolate are a match made in heaven), but is free from palm oil, sugar, artificial flavorings and dairy. 

Instead, it’s heavy on hazelnuts, whose skins have an antioxidant capacity 7-8 times that of dark chocolate, 10 times that of espresso coffee, and 25 times that of blackberries (3). Hazelnuts also provide healthy monounsaturated fats and protein, so this home-made paste is likely to keep you sated longer than commercial equivalents and thus curb snack-attacks.

The paste’s sweetness comes from honey (whose praises I sang in the previous post) and prunes which, in addition to having a moderate glycemic impact, contain natural compounds that have been shown to selectively kill human breast cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact (which I have written about here). These compounds – chlorogenic and neo-chlorogenic acid – have also been shown in rodent studies to inhibit the spread of cancer cells (metastasis).

Homemade Hazelnut-Chocolate Spread (makes about 10oz/1¼ cup/300g)

5¼ oz/cup/150g hazelnut butter
3.5oz/scant ½ cup/100g prune puree (health-food shop, or make it yourself: combine 1/2 cup pitted prunes with 3-4 tbsp hot water in a food processor and blend until smooth.)
2-3 tbsp honey (to taste)
1 heaped tbsp pure, unsweetened cocoa
2-3 tbsp lukewarm water
1 tsp natural vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients except hazelnut butter and mix. With a metal spoon, carefully fold hazelnut paste into this mixture, taking care not to stir too vigorously or the oil may separate out. Add a little lukewarm water if you want a softer paste.

Transfer to an empty, clean jam jar; keeps for about two weeks in the refrigerator.

Slather on wholegrain toast, waffles and pancakes, dab on banana slices or stir into yogurt. (This paste is rich in calories, so enjoy sparingly – for even nutrient-dense calories are calories!)

(1)      U.S. Nutella website:
(2)      Australian Nutella website:
(3)      Del Rio D., Calani L., Dall’Asta M., Brighenti F.: Polyphenolic composition of hazelnut skin.  J Agric Food Chem. 2011 Sep 28;59(18):9935-41:

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