Israel's food labeling reform: What do consumers say?

Reform requires red warning labels on all food and beverage products with high levels of sodium, sugar or saturated fat.

Red 'traffic light' nutrition labels are seen on cream cheese products on Israeli supermarket shelves. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Red 'traffic light' nutrition labels are seen on cream cheese products on Israeli supermarket shelves.
Eager to improve public health and nutritional awareness, government initiatives to introduce mandatory “traffic light” and other warning labels on food and beverage packaging have slowly gained popularity in recent years.
While some have criticized the simplistic nature of the scheme, introduced by some countries on a voluntary basis for manufacturers, Israel’s mandatory labeling reform came into force on January 1 amid worrying increases in obesity and diet-related illnesses.
“The buying public has a fundamental right to receive information regarding the [nutritional] values served to us in the products we buy,” said Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who devised the initiative.
The reform requires red warning labels to appear on all food and beverage products containing high levels of sodium, sugar or saturated fat, and enables the optional addition of green labels for recommended foodstuffs.
While the requirements entered into force last week, it was immediately clear during a visit to the large branch of Shufersal on the ground floor of Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center on Tuesday that only a minority of unhealthy snacks and drinks currently feature the required labels.
According to the Health Ministry, the labeling initiative is the result of three years of hard work. Yet the question remains: What impact will it have on the consumer?
Adam Werthime, a 32-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, told The Jerusalem Post the introduction of labeling will inevitably increase awareness regarding nutrient levels in popular products. “Sodium, sugar and saturated fats are not so widely talked about around the dining room table or, alternatively, when selecting and collecting products for the shopping trolley,” Werthime said.
“I didn’t know how much sugar could be in a single pack of crackers or tomato puree. Suddenly you notice that a seemingly savory product also contains high levels of sugar that you might not necessarily take home.”
While some consumers will inevitably purchase preferred products no matter the nutrient content, Yael Mogyoros, a student, told the Post that labels will not have an impact for a different reason.
“The labels won’t have an influence because I know they don’t matter,” said Mogyoros. “It is better for me to consume, for example, cottage cheese with high sodium content than an empty carbohydrate with no sticker and nothing inside. It is great for people with awareness, but can also cause confusion.”
For Rachel Sharon, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, choosing the right products goes significantly beyond stickers showing high levels of specific nutrients. Sharon said she systematically checks the contents of every product she purchases.
“I am determined not to buy foods that contain hydrogenated oils which can be found in ice creams, cookies, chewing gum and pizza dough,” said Sharon, citing an ingredient often used to increase product shelf life. “Usually when packaged food is unusually cheap, you can be sure it contains hydrogenated oil. It’s hazardous, as the body does not break it down and it gets stored in fat tissue, potentially causing cancer.”
Sharon said she also pays close attention to levels of sugar in products, even if higher quality foods come at an additional cost. “I try to buy jam that is 100% fruit as opposed to jam that is 50% sugar and 35% fruit, even if I have to pay a little extra,” she said. “I think it’s worth it as my health depends on it.”