Health Ministry to Move Aggressively on Junk Food

Outgoing Director General of the Ministry of Health, Prof. Arnon Afek (L) seen with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (C) and Incoming Director General of the Ministry of Health Moshe Bar Siman Tov during a press conference regarding new mental health reform at the Ministry of Health office in Jerusalem on June 8, 2015. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** בריאות הנפש ארנון אפק מנכ"ל משרד הבריאות משרד הבריאות יעקב ליצמן משה בר סימן טוב
Israel Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman (L.) and Director General of the Ministry Moshe Bar Siman-Tov during a press conference regarding new mental-health reform at the Ministry of Health office in Yerushalayim, June 8, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman has appointed Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov as his point man in the war against junk food, and Siman-Tov has released his standards – very tough ones – for which foods will be labeled healthy, and which ones junk.

“Food that is high in calories and has little nutritional value should be called ‘harmful food.’ I agree that the individual has a role in making the right decision, but we are witnesses to the failure of that model, the evidence being the increasing rates of obesity that we see around us. When it comes to air pollution we do not expect people to wear masks to protect themselves – it is up to society to ensure clean air – and the same thing should be instituted in food.”

The Ministry is determined to limit the impact of junk food on Israelis, and in recent weeks Rabbi Litzman has held special discussions with the Knesset Regulatory Commission to institute a special tax or label on items that could be classified as less than ideally nutritious.

No decisions have been made yet, but the Health Ministry is pushing for some – either an excise tax on food that does not meet criteria, or a tax credit for companies that produce nutritionally sound snacks, or a combination of the two. If such taxes are implemented, Israel would be following a path paved by other countries such as Denmark, France, Austria and the U.K., all of which tax either soft drinks, fast food, or snack foods to some extent. The tax money in Israel, as in other countries, would be used to implement programs that would encourage healthier eating and more physical activity among children and adults, the Ministry said.

Among the initiatives the Ministry is considering, besides taxation, is labeling – cigarette pack-style – the packages of snack food to emphasize their calorie and fat level, along with a “health score,” to be determined by professionals, which will rank food products on a scale between 1 and 10 (or 1 and 100) on its desirability. The healthier a food – taking into account its nutrient level, calorie, fat, sugar, salt, etc. – the higher a score it will get.

At the top on the list of nutritional enemies is sugar and its sweet relatives, like high fructose corn syrup, said Siman-Tov. “There are food categories where it might be difficult to make changes in the composition of foods, but sugar is not one of them. The sugar level in foods should be easy to change. In general, foods that are digested quickly (such as sugar and other carbohydrates) have a negative effect on weight rates. This is not a war – we are not seeking to destroy the processed food business, but to make changes. All change brings new opportunities,” he added.

According to statistics supplied by the Central Bureau of Statistics and analyzed by the Ministry, 44 percent of Israelis – nearly one out of two – are overweight or obese, and the same is true of 21 percent of first graders. By seventh grade, 30 percent of kids are overweight.