Israelis Want Healthier Food, Even if They’re Fuzzy on the Specifics

Less sugar and salt is all the rage as food makers try to catch up and still keep their products tasty.

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A host of goodies on display at the high-class dessert laboratory.
A host of goodies on display at the high-class dessert laboratory.Credit: Sharon Heinrich
Sivan Klingbail
Sivan Klingbail

As of a few days ago, the Hebrew-language Facebook page Children Without Sugar, which was set up by mothers concerned about the their kids’ chocolate milk, had attracted nearly 4,400 likes.

“This page has been established by a group of shocked mothers,” the moms say. “Ten teaspoons of sugar in a bag of chocolate milk! Join us. Only together can we keep our children healthy.”

The Facebook page is part of a trend being supported by the Health Ministry, which aims to get excess sugar and salt off the menu. The growing interest is also reflected in findings by Buzzilla, a firm that monitors what's being talked about on social media.

It finds there's no shortage of vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free freaks and people who eat so-called superfoods that are allegedly super healthy. Each group has its own positive or negative attitudes about specific foods.

There have been notable trends; for example, a mother of two who says that she has totally revamped the menu at home.

“I rid the refrigerator of all the processed high-salt and high-sugar foods that we had been eating. There are now no snack foods, almost no dairy snacks and no processed meats,” she says. “Instead, I’ve brought home a lot of fruits and vegetables, and fish and grains.”

Buzzilla’s vice president for strategy and research, Merav Borenstein, says that in recent years consumers have been making ever greater demands from food companies.

“The subjects that bother them most now in the food sector are actually gluten and lactose, more than sugar and salt,” she says, adding that “there’s increased talk on the internet about gluten, and it’s being led by people with celiac disease and their families.”

People withe celiac disease cannot consume gluten.

The research also shows that there’s a lot of talk about lactose in Israel, even if the craze seems to be on the decline. And talk about salt consumption is rarer than that for sugar.

“Consumers don’t exactly understand the subject of salt. They agree that snack foods aren’t healthy, that they are perceived as junk, but they don’t really understand the problem,” Borenstein says.

“The discussion on the internet regarding gluten is being led by celiac patients and their families, but those who have chosen a gluten-free diet, who view gluten as causing illness, are joining the discussion.”

And the military is getting on board, accommodating soldiers who require gluten-free or vegan food, she says. But talk about excess salt and sugar is less prevalent even though this problem affects many more people.

And when it comes to sugar consumption, Buzzilla is seeing increased discussion on social media, like that Facebook page, even if the buzz is small compared to the talk about gluten and lactose.

Disbelieving the food companies

The head of the dairy division at food producer Tnuva, Anat Gross Shon, is responsible for her company’s Nutritional Compass program aimed at reducing sugar and salt consumption. She isn’t surprised that talk about salt and sugar consumption on social media is still modest.

“Five years ago, we began reducing salt and sugar in our products, because it’s the right thing to do. No consumer has died from preservatives or artificial sweetener, but people do die from overconsumption of sugar and salt, so it’s our job to reduce them,” she says.

“There are three mortality factors in the world: an absence of physical activity, smoking and deficient nutrition. When people around the world talk about deficient nutrition, they focus on excess fat, salt and sugar,” she adds.

“So in the dairy sector, we're relatively okay when it comes to fat, and our day-to-day nutrition [in Israel] is Mediterranean, which is not too high in fat. But like the entire food industry, we have to deal with sugar and salt.”

Gross Shon acknowledges that, despite her company’s steps in recent years to cut sugar and salt, Tnuva and the other food companies haven’t achieved a fundamental change. The reason, according to Buzzilla, is clear. Much of the talk on the internet is about a lack of confidence in the food manufacturers.

A 2016 Maala GlobeScan survey found that just 19% of Israelis believe the food companies. The companies’ decision to reduce sugar is often seen as merely an effort to swap salt for sugar; salt is cheaper.

People think the food makers are worrying about the bottom line, not the people’s health.

“Studies show that people are ambivalent about the companies,” Borenstein says. "They ask what’s behind what they’re saying, what’s motivating them.”

Anat Gabriel is the chief executive of Unilever Israel, whose products include the Telma, Knorr, Lipton and Hellman’s brands, and Strauss ice cream.

“Although there will always be someone who has doubts or cynicism about one step or another, most consumers actually welcome steps designed to improve the nutritional profile of the products they consume,” she says. “As a major food company, we have a responsibility to our consumers and can’t march in place.”

Israeli consumers’ confidence in food and beverage companies, according to Maala’s most recent survey, is actually up compared to last year, Gabriel says. And yes, healthiness is the watchword.

Tnuva’s Gross Shon adds: “The subject of sugar and salt and the risks in consuming them haven’t sunk in with consumers to the extent that they understand that they need to reduce sugar and salt.”

As she puts it, “It’s not enough for us to have decided to reduce sugar. I have to explain to the public why it’s important, and if I, as Tnuva, do this, maybe consumers won’t believe me that it’s really important to their health.”

Sweetness follows

Borenstein says consumers want a choice “People say: ‘I want the food to be adapted to me rather than my adapting to the food producers,’” she says

Some of this choice relates to consumer health, but Borenstein says there’s also a desire to take back control over what we’re eating.

“When the Health Ministry says less sugar, some of the producers translate that into ‘let’s put something in instead.’ But consumers say: ‘Maybe sugar isn’t good, but is what you’ve put in instead worse?’” she says.

“We see discussions on the web in which someone writes: ‘But stevia [a sugar substitute] is natural’ and people reply: ‘Sugar is also natural.’ There’s no doubt that with all due respect to regulatory agencies, the consumer wants to know what’s replacing the sugar, and not just that they have reduced the amount of sugar.”

The problem is that changing tastes takes time. “Tnuva has already gradually reduced 40% of added sugar,” Gross Shon says.

“If I replace the sweetness from someplace else, they’ll never get used to less sugar. There’s a direct connection between taste buds and the brain, and when the brain senses sweet, it wants more sweet.”

Unilever’s Gabriel says that since 2005, her company has consistently reduced the sodium in its products.

“Since 2010 we have gradually been reducing sugar, and in 2012 we removed trans fats from all of our products, even before these subjects were on the public agenda and before legislation on the subject was proposed. In addition, we have announced that by the end of the year, the boxes of all our Telma breakfast cereals will be marked with symbols showing the number of teaspoons of sugar,” she says.

“We’re not replacing the sugar with worse ingredients to save on costs. On the contrary, sugar is one of the least expensive raw materials, and we're replacing it with more grain, which is necessarily more expensive, but we’re not passing the cost on to the consumer.”

So how does Gabriel’s industry address consumers’ perceptions that manufactured food is less healthy?

“I don’t think that in the current era anyone really believes that you can get by with food grown in plots next to your house. Manufactured food isn’t necessarily a negative thing. It’s essential and we can’t do without it,” she says.

“The trick is, to the extent possible, to improve the products’ nutritional profile; for example, by reducing sugar and sodium and adding nutritional fiber and whole grains and still maintaining the taste.”

Borenstein says the planned changes in product labeling are part of the response to consumer demands, but not necessarily the entire response.

“Some of the discussion on social media about sodium, for example, is ‘I don’t want this with so much salt. If I want salt, I’ll add it.’ The consumer wants to be the one to decide,” she says.

Gross Shon adds that there’s no doubt the food industry’s challenge is complex.

“To reduce the quantity of sugar and salt and still produce products that taste good, we’ve carried out dozens or hundreds of taste tests,” she says. “Do you think anyone is applauding? On the contrary, on the one hand they say ‘Cut it down,’ but on the other they say ‘It doesn’t taste good.”

Gross Shon concludes: “Dealing with the subject of trust means simply doing it, and everything else will come.”

Sivan Klingbail, a former writer and editor for Haaretz, is an independent reporter and television presenter.

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