20% of Israeli Ads With Health Claims Are Misleading, Report Says

New research finds food advertisements send a distinctly unhealthy message – and there's little supervision.

A screenshot from a Health Ministry promotional video promoting healthy eating.
YouTube Screenshot

Israeli consumers are flooded with advertising messages every day: on billboards and bus stops; television, during commercial breaks and even on the shows; on the internet, of course; and on your mobile phone. Ads jump out at us from every direction: “Lose eight kilos in five weeks,” or “Put an end to the suffering and pain.”

One of the main categories for all this advertising is food, and in the center of many of these food ads is an attempt to convince us that a certain snack will provide us with all the needed vitamins; a food additive will help us get over an illness; or a drink we buy will bring us happiness and make our lives better and special.

The influence of such food advertising messages is enormous, and the proof comes from the Health Ministry’s recent attempt to speak out against excessive consumption of sugar and salt. The campaign led to a drop in sales in those categories consumers view as less healthy, and a rise in sales of “healthy” foods.

The problem is that most of the food ads Israelis see do not come from bodies such as the Health Ministry, but from those trying to sell you something - wrapped up in a healthy message such as helping you lose weight, making your skin look younger, putting an end to aches and pains or even preventing diseases.

How much do these health messages reflect reality and is someone examining these claims and looking out for our health? These questions are the focus of a new study from the Emun Hatzibur (Public Trust) nonprofit consumer organization, conducted by Tamar Nevo.

The research explains that a health-related advertising message creates a link between the use of the product and the consumer’s health. “Deceptive and baseless claims can lead consumers to consume less healthy products, or to give up medical treatment in favor of food or nutritional additives that make far-reaching promises for improvement or healing,” states the study.

The research was based on examining ads in different media as well as the labels on the products. The study also compared the existing regulatory system in Israel for health-related advertising to that in Europe and the United States. In addition, the study examined how consumers viewed the trustworthiness of the messages in making their buying decisions, as well as the influence on the businesses involved. The study included a survey of 500 consumers.

Only 2.6 probes a year

The study examined advertising claims concerning health from a wide variety of media, including television, newspapers, internet and magazines. during specific periods. The emphasis was on food, cosmetics, food additives, diets, pain treatments and various forms of detoxification. One hundred fifty-two ads with health claims were checked, from 56 different advertisers.

The results showed that 20% of the ads contained blatantly unreliable claims. The least credible claims were found in local weekly newspapers and on the internet. Television ads were found to be more credible, with none of them containing “blatantly unreliable” claims. This is because Israeli commercial television is supervised by a government regulator, the Second Television and Radio Authority, said the authors.

The Health Ministry provides less effective supervision, through its “committee on investigating deception.” This committee is meant to examine consumer deception in advertising, such as attributing health qualities to food, cosmetic and other products. The study found the committee’s activities to be extremely weak. The committee’s official webpage on the Health Ministry site contains only 23 cases since 2009, and investigations into only 17 products have been opened since then – an average of 2.6 a year.

Not only does the committee conduct very few investigations, these investigations have turned out to be ineffective too. Eight of the 17 products are still being sold to the public using the same – or very similar – claims that the committee found problematic.

For example, in December 2011 the committee told the marketers of the HCG Diet, also known as the pregnancy hormone diet, that its claims were illegal and deceptive, such as that the diet would “eliminate all the excess reserves of fat in the body and restart the metabolism,” or “an average weight loss of 200 to 500 grams almost every day.” While the website behind the claims is gone, the product is still being sold to consumers with the very same claims.

The Israeli public is exposed to a wide range of such blatantly unreliable claims, says the study, and this is because of the wide range of regulation on the various media.

The consumer survey found that a third of respondents reported they used a product or service, or changed their buying habits, because the ads said the product would improve their health.

Model regulation in Europe, U.S.

Regulation in the United States and Europe for ads with health claims is much different than in Israel, the study found. There, claims can be made based only on credible information from a professional body that examined the reliability of the claims and acts “according to clear and uniform criteria.” In Israel, a ban exists on any claims of medical qualities regardless of the reliability of the information, but the regulations contain no definition of what health claims are and no professional body exists to check their credibility.

The study found that in Israel, regulators are rarely seen intervening in such matters, and there is a lack of cooperation between the various regulators. For example, the Health Ministry does not work in coordination with the Consumer Protection Authority.

Because of the total ban on the use of health related claims in advertising, the regulators have adopted the approach that as a result they have no need to supervise it – except when it comes to cosmetics. So they do not check on the truth of such claims (except on commercial television, but this applies only to a small percentage of the ads, because television advertising is so expensive that only large companies advertise there). Most businesses undergo no supervision whatsoever in the other advertising media: newspapers, magazines and internet.

Another challenge is labeling. The regulation of health messages on labels is very limited, if it’s even there. Companies can print pretty much anything they want on the labels, with little fear of any regulator doing anything about it, things such as “fortified with vitamins and iron,” “without preservatives,” or “made from natural ingredients,” even if sometimes the products themselves are problematic from a health standpoint. They may be made with natural ingredients, but are filled with sugar and salt, or contain saturated fats; ;the information on the quantities only appears in the small print. Not only small or unknown firms use such techniques, so do many if not almost all of the biggest, best-known companies in Israel.

The Consumer Protection Authority, like the Health Ministry, certainly does not scare advertisers either. The authority does have enforcement powers over certain consumer issues, both administrative and criminal, and can impose fines or lead to indictments for companies who violate such rules. But the study found not a single case in which the authority acted to enforce the ban on deceptive health claims.

The study also found the companies that advertise are often not aware of the rules of what they can claim, and what they can’t. For example, the government regulatory bodies involved do not release information regularly for businesses on their policies are activities concerning health-related advertising, including enforcement actions. And when the Health Ministry does publish such information on its website, it is often partial and not up-to-date.

The enforcement actions listed on the Consumer Protection Authority website do not include the names of the companies involved. This lack of transparency is a major sign of the problem, say the authors. By comparison, in Europe and the United States such advertising may require prior approval, as well as the oversight, follow-up and enforcement actions.

Lacking proper enforcement and regulation, consumers have often chosen to take things into their own hands and take the offenders to court using class-action suits. The study found that over 50% of such suits over health-related advertising claims concern nutritional and health information.

The study examined 130 such class-action suits filed from 2013 through 2016 (though not all were approved by the courts) against large food companies such as Tnuva, Strauss, Osem, Unilever, the Central Bottling Company (better known as Coca Cola Israel), and the two largest companies selling nutritional supplements in Israel – though not smaller companies.

The lack of regulatory clarity is one of the factors for the large number of class-action lawsuits, says Nevo. It has turned the court into the regulator, and this has a price because the courts have no professional expertise on health issues, which makes it difficult for the courts to make the correct decisions, she said.

Despite the findings, not everything looks so hopeless. To a certain extent, partly due to the threat from the Health Ministry and the Knesset to take more serious action, food manufacturers have voluntarily acted to reduce the use of less healthy ingredients and improve labeling.

The ministry has begun working to introduce regulations concerning healthy nutrition too, including establishing a committee on the matter. One of the emphases is on “negative” labeling, requiring warnings about poor nutritional value and ingredients. It is considered easier for consumers to understand what is bad for them than to try to understand the complex issues of what is truly healthy.

Finally, in September, the new Food Law will take effect, requiring the issuing of new regulations on health claims within a year.

The Consumer Protection Authority said the authors of the study did not approach the authority even once to examine its activities. After consulting with the Health Ministry and other relevant bodies, including the committee on preventing fraud, it seems they did not receive any request either. As a result, the seriousness of the research and certainly the conclusions derived from it are unreliable and do not match existing reality, said the authority.