Israel’s Plan to Discourage Sugar Is Set for Bitter Disappointment

Similar program in Chile to the one Israel is introducing saw makers switch to artificial sweeteners to avoid the red warning label sugar requires

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Granulated sugar is poured in Philadelphia, September 12, 2016.
Granulated sugar is poured in Philadelphia, September 12, 2016.Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

Six months from now, Israeli food and drink makers will be required to affix a red warning label on products deemed to have excessive amounts of sugar, sodium or saturated fats.

The new system is based on a similar one in Chile, which went into effect over two years ago and was lauded by Israeli Health Ministry officials as the way for Israel to go in its campaign to wean Israelis off harmful ingredients.

But it turns out the food industry in Chile has gotten around the rules by substituting artificial sweeteners like sucralose and stevia extracts instead. Israeli companies who spoke to TheMarker said they planned to employ the same strategy.

Dr. Eran Elinav.Credit: Itay Belson/Weizmann Institute of Science

“There’s nothing else we can do – people want sweet,” said one industry executive who asked not to be identified. “From the day we were born, we nursed on mother’s milk. Healthy products without sugar we’ve launched in the past have been a failure at the checkout counter. Under the circumstances, artificial sweeteners are the perfect solution.”

Chile’s problems were revealed last week when a local newspaper discovered a sharp rise in the use of artificial sweeteners since the new warning labels were introduced. Between January 2015 and June 2016, some 19% of all food and beverage products in Chile underwent changes in their formulas – in many cases substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar.

Chilean newspaper La Tercera found there isn’t a single brand of chocolate drink or juice on sale in local supermarkets now that isn’t sweetened artificially.

Artificial sweeteners aren’t a healthier alternative to sugar, according to a study by Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and published in the journal Nature three years ago. It found that, in certain cases, artificial sweeteners could raise blood sugar levels more than sugar-sweetened sodas and desserts do.

“We saw that with certain people who have a certain profile of gut microorganisms, using artificial sweeteners created an excessive sugar reaction,” said Dr. Eran Elinav, one of the Weizmann scientists involved in the 2014 study. “The research elicited a strong reaction around the world because so many people use artificial sweeteners to prevent complications – and it turns out that, in many cases, it causes them,” he added.

Prof. Eitan Friedman.Credit: Alon Ron

Not everyone thinks sweeteners are such a health risk, including Prof. Eitan Friedman, director of the oncogenetics unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.

“Using sweeteners as one way of minimizing the number of calories we consume is a welcome process,” he said, adding, “It hasn’t been proven there is a link between the consumption of artificial sweeteners in a reasonable amount to any disease, including cancer.”

Israel’s Health Ministry isn’t going to force companies to put the red warning label for high-sugar content on products with artificial sweeteners. But they won’t be entitled to use the green label signaling a healthier product, either.

Chilean companies found another way of getting around the rules, which set the top sugar level for drinks at 6 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters and for solid foods at 22.5 grams per 100 grams. Suddenly, products like yogurt began to come in packages measured in grams instead of milliliters – a practice sources said would likely be copied by Israeli makers.

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