Food Traditions Succumb to Health Worries

Sales of holiday favorites like processed meat and hummus were down sharply ahead of Independence Day and Lag B’Omer, as trend toward better eating habits deepens.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a meeting in Arad.
Yehoshua Ashkenazi, Arad Spokesman

When Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman paid a surprise visit to the Ma’apilim School in Lod last month, students got a lecture not on doing well in class but on proper diet and the dangers of fast food. The two even took time to inspect the food served to students at the school.

The two politicians know that the public is thinking about eating more healthily and have adopted the cause as their own. Litzman upset McDonalds in February by calling it out for serving junk food, while in April Bennett published rules on what kind of food can be brought to schools.

On Monday, Litzman’s Health Ministry pulled a public service broadcast warning of the dangers of eating salty snacks after it had been aired twice on local television. It also took the video off the ministry website, but for now left it on its Facebook page.

Moshe Bar-Simantov, the ministry’s director general, insisted officials weren’t buckling under to industry pressure. “We came out with a limited, pre-planned campaign in which we constantly assess its impact,” he said, explaining why it was pulled. He stressed that the ministry would continue with other campaigns it has launched to promote healthier eating.

But that is an unusual and small retreat against a tidal wave of healthy eating that has suddenly swept over Israeli households, supermarkets and food factories.

Figures obtained by TheMarker from Israeli supermarket chains show a pretty consistent pattern since the start of the year of rising sales for foods regarded as healthy or more natural and declining sales for those that don’t pass the test.

Most prominent, sales of prepared hummus – a staple of the Israeli diet – were down 14% in January-April, compared with the same time in 2015. Sales of processed meat, led by a 25% decline in hot dog sales, also plummeted.

On the other side of the health equation, sales of fresh fish soared 40% in the first four months of the year, raw tehina sales grew 15% and bagged green salad sales by 11%. Gluten-free foods have seen their sales jump 39% this year.

Israelis didn’t even take a break in the trend toward healthier eating for this year’s Independence Day and Lag B’Omer – two holidays when they usually devour vast amounts of meat cooked on grills and dipped in hummus.

Data prepared by the market research firm Nielsen for TheMarker found that sales of processed meat were down 16% in the weeks before the two holidays, compared with the same time last year. Hummus sales were down more than 20% year on year and those of prepared salads by about 12%.

Sources at the big food retailers said that even aggressive discounting failed to boost sales for the foods now out of favor.

“We arranged specials with the manufacturers of a 700-gram hummus and hot dog for just 4 shekels [just over $1 dollar] and even that didn’t work,” said one executive, who asked not to be named. “Sales of processed foods are down 25% to 30% across the board, compared with last year.”

Industry responds

Responding to the heightened awareness, food makers are adjusting their ingredients and labels. On Monday, TheMarker reported that the industry was planning to voluntarily post information on nutritional values for key ingredients on labels. Meat processors have removed nitrates and preservatives, but so far to no avail, said another supermarket executive.

“We’ve seen the trend toward health and the drop in sales of unhealthy foods at all our stores and not just in the center of the country. Also in the periphery people are more interested in what they’re eating and want to eat healthy, quality fresh food and avoid fats. It’s a widespread phenomenon,” said the supermarket executive.

Some industry figures have ascribed the change to a series of health warnings that have surfaced over the last few months. But Adi Yoffe, who is an expert on social trends, said it’s much bigger than that.

“The trend toward healthfulness is coming hand in hand with declining public trust in big corporations in general and food companies in particular,” she said. “The main thing behind the health trend is that people are taking control and responsibility for what they put in their mouth. They no longer rely on companies to tell them what’s good for them.”

Yoffe said another aspect of the change in consumer habits was the growing use of alternative retailers – such as bakeries, produce stands and butchers – instead of big supermarket chains. All this squares with declining confidence in big companies and greater trust in smaller private producers,” she said.

At Miki Delicatessen, co-owner Moshe Kauftheil said his sales haven’t fallen because his company is perceived as small and family owned.

But he isn’t taking any chance and said the company has developed its first technology team to find ways of making its prepared salads more appealing to changing consumer tastes.

With reporting by Nati Tucker.