How Sweet It Isn’t: Sugarless Sales Soar in Israel

A Health Ministry campaign seems to have prompted the surge, but industry experts say it’s part of a big shift toward eating more healthily.

Tomer Appelbaum

Israelis have suddenly discovered they don’t like sugar as much as they thought. After three years of declining sales for sugar-free products, sales have surged this year.

Super-Sol, Israel’s biggest food retailer, was the first to detect the trend, when it reported a 10% year-on-year rise in sugar-free food in the first quarter. That came after declines for the category of 2% to 3% annually in 2012-15.

Storenext, which collects retail sales figures from hundreds of stores around the country, confirmed it. In January-April, sales of Coke Zero, Diet Coke and Pepsi Max jumped 22% from the same time in 2015, while sales of sugar-fee jelly rose 15%.

Strangely enough, Super-Sol health-food chief Oshri Mayost credits the government with the sudden change in attitudes toward sugar-free foods, which many Israelis say taste bad and aren’t particularly healthy because of artificial sweeteners.

“Since March the no-sugar category has gone wild. We link it to an aggressive campaign by the Health Ministry,” Mayost said. “Every day during peak viewing hours they’re telling consumers, ‘Don’t use sugar. See how much sugar there is in cola. Serve your guests water’ – and it’s working.”

The Health Ministry campaign, which kicked off March 22, warns the public that too much sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease and heart ailments. Itamar Grotto, who is in charge of public health services at the ministry, says the commercials come amid a rising incidence of diabetes in Israel, for which he says sugar is much to blame.

“Beyond that, we want to reduce sugar consumption among the population generally, especially because of growing obesity, especially among children, a global phenomenon that hasn’t passed Israel by.”

A diabetes educator performs a blood sugar test
Reuters

Israelis haven’t just sworn off sugar. A warning last October by the World Health Organization about the cancer risk from processed meat sent sales of cold cuts and sausages plunging. Earlier this year, a television news exposé on prepared salads, including hummus, caused their sales to fall, too.

But it seems that one-time warnings aren’t the only reason for declining sales of these foods. Worldwide, there’s a growing awareness of the health properties, or lack thereof, of food. The taste and quality of healthier alternatives is improving.

One sign of growing interest is a 17% increase over the past year in Israelis doing web searches for sugar-free diets, according to accounting firm Deloitte and Buzzilla, a research firm that follows social media. Online chats about low-sugar foods grew 55%.

“We’re seeing demand from consumers not just for low-sugar products but for natural and healthier sugar substitutes, meaning food shouldn’t just have fewer calories but be healthy, too,” said Merav Borenstein, vice president for strategy and research at Buzzilla.

Mayost of Super-Sol said the healthy trend was slowly happening. “Products in the category have for years been inferior to ordinary ones. Products would contain 25 or 30 ingredients,” he said.

“But today they’ve become healthier, and slowly these products are being made with fewer ingredients and are more natural.”

Grotto said companies were gradually adapting to changing consumer demands, noting a big drop in the use of nitrates. “We want to see similar things done with sugar,” he said.

Tnuva, Israel’s biggest food maker, has been part of a campaign with the Health Ministry called Food Compass that has reduced sugar content in around 130 products since 2013.

“In milk drinks we’ve reduced added sugar by 40%,” said Lilach Cohen-Schulman, manager of dairy marketing. “We’re using technology in a very gradual way, without using artificial sweeteners.”

But not too fast, she added: “We’ve learned from the experience of companies around the world that a drastic change in ingredients often leads to a commercial failure.”

Still, in Israel the price of sugarless products is high. A price comparison for TheMarker by Mysupermarket.co.il, an online food-shopping site, found that the difference between sugar-free and ordinary food was typically a double-digit percentage.

For example, Elite’s best-selling brand of chocolate sold for 3.80 shekels (99 cents) for 100 grams while the same product sugar-free sold for 8.90 shekels, a difference of more than 130%. Ordinary sliced bread sold for 80 agorot per 100 grams while its “lite” version sold for two shekels, a difference of 160%.

Moshe Alpert, CEO of Mysupermarket.co.il, said the reason was that sales of sugar-free foods are small.