Sweet tooth, dear tooth
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Dvir Almog
No free, fattening lunches. Would you pay more to eat this? Photo by Dvir Almog

The Israeli government is taking concrete steps to help Israelis eat right, with the help of the Tax Authority.

The Tax Authority agrees to support a special tax on unhealthy foods, it said this week, to encourage healthy eating habits and help curb obesity. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry for the first time endorsed a plan that will permit special labeling of healthy foods.

"There are countries that tax unhealthy food," Eran Yaakov, deputy director general for finance and development at the Tax Authority told Haaretz, and the authority would like to examine the approach as one way of encouraging healthy eating. He said he would convene a committee with representatives from the health and education ministries to promote the idea of taxing unhealthy food.

According to Health Ministry data, 37 percent of Israeli adults are overweight and another 15 percent are chronically obese. Fourteen percent of Israeli youth are overweight and another seven percent are obese. It is estimated that the excess weight among Israelis costs the Israeli economy NIS 5.8 billion a year in healthcare costs.

A tax on unhealthy food, Yaakov said, should be part of an effort to curb the consumption of sugar and salt in foods and also address the kinds of food children get in school. "It's all a matter of education," he said, "which needs to be promoted through the schools." He cited as a model the successful effort to educate children not to pick the cyclamen, a wildflower indigenous to Israel.

Yaakov rejected a Health Ministry proposal that revenue from a tax on unhealthy food be earmarked either for the treatment of overweight patients, or for reducing the price of healthy food. "In Israel, as a matter of policy, tax revenues are not earmarked for specific purposes. Funds collected are transferred to the state treasury and then the government decides what to invest in based on its order of priorities," he said.

The initiative to tax unhealthy food follows a survey by the Gertner Institute, an organization that deals with health policy, in which one-third of those questioned supported a special tax on soft drinks and snacks to combat excessive weight in the country and encourage healthy eating. Fully two-thirds of those surveyed said they would support the tax if it is earmarked to fighting excess weight or to subsidizing healthy foods. The poll, it should be noted, was conducted following the outbreak of last summer's social justice protests, which focused in part on the price of food and tax policy.

A number of countries tax unhealthy foods. In Finland and Denmark, food with high sugar content is subject to a special tax. Austria has a similar tax on foods high in saturated fat while France imposes a special tax on chocolate and other candy. Others allow the promotion of healthy foods with special labeling. [See diagram].

In Israel, the Health Ministry has developed criteria for whole-grain breads that can be labeled as healthy and will encourage consumers to buy whole-grain bread. The ministry will also for the first time allow foods with healthful special nutritional properties to be labeled as such.

The ministry has also drafted regulations that would require restaurants and cafes to label their menu items with calorie counts. Draft regulations on the subject have recently been circulated for comment by professionals prior to its submission to the Knesset's Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. The regulations call for the calorie count to be at least as big as the name of the menu item. The number of calories would have to be substantiated by a laboratory recognized by the Health ministry.

Whole-grain bread will be the first product to get the special package designation in retail stores. The following statement will be permitted on bread that meets the required criteria: "This bread meets the recommendations of the Health Ministry for proper nutrition." Similar labeling will also be permitted next to bread sold unpackaged in retail food stores and markets.

To earn the right to the special labeling, the bread will also have to meet maximum sodium and calorie content. The ministry is also in the process of revising regulations to require that bread labeled whole-grain contain at least 80 percent whole grain flour. The regulations are expected to take effect in a matter of weeks.

A wide range of health benefits are attributed to eating whole-grain bread instead of bread made with processed flour, including lower incidence of arterial sclerosis and cancer. Although health benefits are also attributed to diet bread, no decision has yet been made allowing this kind of bread to be labeled as conferring special health benefits.

In 2006, a task force recommended that guidelines for a healthy lifestyle be added to food packaging and the following year, the Health Ministry considered a labeling plan for foods that had been proven to be beneficial to cardiac health. Neither proposal was implemented.

"Printing symbols or statements on food packages based on their healthfulness could cause problems," Itamar Grotto, director of public health services at the ministry explained, "because it's not possible to label fruits and vegetables, which are considered the healthiest [food] sources, and with regard to drinks, diet soft drinks cannot be labeled as healthy for their low sugar content when the ministry is interested in promoting the consumption of water."