Drinks cos cry foul over Health Ministry anti-sugar campaign

Yaakov Litzman  photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot
Yaakov Litzman photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot

"The beverages companies are wealthy, so it's the easiest and the sexiest thing to sacrifice them."

Is Israel's Ministry of Health posing a threat to the huge profits of the country's beverages companies - or perhaps making manipulative use of the data in order to attack them, as they claim?

Senior figures in the Israeli beverages industry have been attacking the Ministry of Health, claiming that it is misleading the public through "false representations and misinformation on the causes of obesity in Israel." The attack follows a campaign mounted by the Ministry of Health against consumption of sugared drinks, in which it claimed that 43% of our daily sugar consumption comes from them.

The beverages companies claim that not only does the campaign fail to mention that this statistic relates to the population of the US, but the statistic itself is wrong, and that the figure in the source study is 31%.

"This is deception," says a senior source from one of the beverages companies, "The beverages companies are wealthy, and so it's the easiest and the sexiest thing to sacrifice them."

In a survey of awareness, attitudes and behavior that the Ministry of Health published in 2013, 20% of the respondents reported that they consumed sugared drinks at least once a day. A higher proportion reported consuming added sugar from other sources: 56% reported consuming a hot beverage with added sugar; 36% said they consumed sweetened baked goods; and 29% said they consumed a sweet snack, at least once a day.

The industry source said, "On average, a person consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, and there's sugar everywhere, not just in drinks. There's sugar in ketchup, in baked goods, in breakfast cereals, in sauces, in mayonnaise, in prepared salads, in dairy desserts, in frozen processed foods. According to our research, only 16% of added sugar comes from sweetened beverages. What about the remaining products that are responsible for the other 84%?

"I'm not saying that beverages shouldn't be dealt with, but that it's necessary to deal with everything. Sweetened beverages are not the only, or the main, cause of obesity. This claim is populistic. Unless the Ministry of Health faces the facts on the ground, it will in any case not achieve any result. As in other areas, the Ministry of Health's treatment of the obesity problem is negligent."

The beverages companies know full well that the campaign mounted by the Ministry of Health is just the start, and that the future holds a difficult challenge. It has already been decided to remove sweetened drinks from school cafeterias.

As far as that goes, the Ministry of Health is perceived as authoritative and as acting in the interests of the consumer. The beverages companies will always be seen as motivated by their profits and interests, and not by the good of the ordinary consumer. Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman has made clear that he has no inhibitions in this matter, as evidenced by his unprecedented attack on fast food chain McDonald's at a cardiologists' conference in April. "McDonald's out. Not wanted in our country," he said, "People shouldn't eat McDonald's. We need to educate our children not to eat junk food and not to eat so many candies. This is right as far as diabetes is concerned, and it's right for the heart."

Meanwhile, the minister of health has appointed a "Committee for Regulation to Promote Healthy Nutrition" headed by ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov. In the appointment letter, Litzman wrote, "The rise in the extent of obesity, and the chronic ill-health connected with it, makes necessary significant action on the national policy level."

In practice, the intention is to impose regulation on the food and beverages companies. The committee is currently examining various possible steps, including warnings of unhealthy ingredients on food products and taxation of beverages.

The beverages companies realize that the die is cast as far as they are concerned, and that they are best advised to try to moderate the Ministry of Health's measures before they sustain a hard blow, which will be in addition to the blow that this market has in any case already taken.

StoreNext figures that have reached "Globes" show that in the past decade there has been an 11% decline in the volume of sugared beverages consumed (not including diet beverages). The decline has mainly been in the past five years.

After adjustment of the volume in liters to the size of the population, the figures show a decline of 18%, from consumption of 57 liters of sweetened beverages per person annually in 2010 to 47 liters in 2015. These figures do not include beverages sold cold in kiosks and convenience stores, but the trend can be assumed to be universal.

The most significant volume decline, 17% in five years, has been in consumption of cola, the largest category in the beverages market. Sales of diet cola, by contrast, have soared 23% in the past five years, accounting for 40% of the cola category in 2015, up from 31% in 2010.

The conclusion is that awareness on the part of Israeli consumers is growing, and that the process of decline in consumption of sweetened beverages is happening even without the Ministry of Health's intervention.

The Ministry of Health stated in response to the report, "We will not comment on the work of the committee while it is working. When it completes its work, its conclusions will be presented to the public. The figure we present is based on a survey by Gartner, which found that soft drinks account for 43% of sugar consumption."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 7, 2016

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2016

Yaakov Litzman  photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot
Yaakov Litzman photo: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot
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