Is SA eating clean? Wendy investigates

Is SA eating clean? Wendy investigates

Life in South Africa has changed dramatically since 1994 in so many ways. But what about our eating habits - are we eating differently from how we were 21 years ago?


Lisa Ronquest-Ross found out for us, and what she found is not much cause for celebration.

Her article, “Food Consumption changes in South Africa since 1994”, which is published in the current issue of the SA Journal of Science, comes from research done at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Food Science, where she is doing her PhD on how the food and beverage industry can use science and technology to respond to the major shifts in food consumption patterns.

Lisa is currently the head of product development at Mars Food Global.

There’s a shocking lack of regular national food consumption data in South Africa - in fact the largest and only national food consumption survey conducted in SA was way back in 1999.

Incidentally, as Lisa points out in her published article, that 16-year-old survey showed that the most commonly consumed foods of children aged one to 9 at the time were maize, sugar, tea, milk and brown bread, meaning their intake of energy and key vitamins and minerals was below two thirds of the recommended dietary allowances.

Very sobering.

So getting back to Lisa’s research, she relied on two databases to track our food consumption shifts since 1994 - the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database, or FAOSTAT - food balance sheets, and the Euromonitor International Passport.

In a nutshell, she found that compared with two decades ago, we’re consuming more kilojoules on average, drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages, eating more processed and packaged food, more animal source foods, more caloric sweeteners, and less vegetables.

The biggest jumps in consumption - more than 30% - were for soft drinks, sauces, dressings and condiments, sweet and savoury snacks, meat and fats and oils.

Convenience, perceived health and nutrition, and indulgence drove the increased consumption of packaged foods and beverages.

Research findings 

It’s a very comprehensive article, but here’s my list of stand-out findings:

Soft drinks are second only to fruit when it comes to street sales.  Lisa comments in the article: “The high prevalence of soft drink consumption is concerning in terms of its association with obesity and non communicable diseases.”  That includes diabetes.

Lisa quotes South Africa’s annual per capita consumption of Coca Cola products - that includes all variants of fizzy drinks, juices, ready-to-drink coffees and teas, sports drinks and waters - as 260 servings, compared with 144 in 1992.

That’s per person, per year. Compare our 260 to the worldwide average of 94. For some perspective, in Kenya, annual consumption of Coke products is an average of 39 per person, in Nigeria it’s 26, and India just 14. 

In countries such as Germany and the UK, consumption of Coca Cola products is dropping. Clearly not here. 

But we are way behind the curve when it comes to consumption of bottled water. Global average in 2002 was 22.7 litres per person per year. In South Africa, despite a massive 315% growth in bottled water consumption between 1999 and 2012 - our average per person consumption is 8.3 litres a year. 

Sports drinks and energy drinks experienced a dramatic consumption increase between 1999 and 2012 - 600% - but we still drink far less of them than in countries such as Germany and Austria.

South Africans consume salt at levels of 8.1 grams a day - nearly double the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of 4-6g a day.

We were eating a lot more meat in 2009 than we were in 1994 - an average 18kg per year more; mainly more poultry and pork.  And we’re currently eating a lot more processed meat than we were in 1994, such as sausages and meat with added sauces.

We’re also eating more dairy and eggs, rice and oats, but less maize

Our fruit consumption is also up - remember it’s the most commonly sold street food item sold -  but we’re eating fewer vegetables.

Yoghurt and sour milk consumption increased by a dramatic 73% between 1999 and 2012. 

There’s been a 33% increase in sugar and sweeteners, not on their own but in processed foods such as sweet and soft drinks

In keeping with the global trend, there’s been a marked increase in consumption of packaged foods, the largest category being baked goods.

Consumption of sweet biscuits shot up by a huge 60% between 1999 and 2012, and savoury biscuits by 50%.

Here’s an interesting one - again in keeping with a global trend, consumption of canned foods has dropped, as they are perceived to be less value for money and less fresh and convenient than frozen vegetables. But some canned food product categories showed significant growth in SA - spaghetti in sauce, meat in sauce, and soup.

Consumption of tomato sauce and salad dressing more than doubled between 1999 and 2012 and consumption of mayonnaise went up by 50%.

And in keeping with trend towards convenience, consumption of frozen pizzas, ready meals, chips, chicken also went up dramatically.

Nutrition expert weighs in 

Lisa concludes: “The nutritional consequence of these food consumption shifts has contributed to increased obesity and other non communicative diseases. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that a healthy diet is largely unaffordable for most South Africans, considering that price is the most important factor taken into consideration when selecting food items.”

On the other hand, of course, is the trend towards buying food based on the desire for convenience and indulgence.

Lisa points out that the South African Department of Health has targeted the food and beverage industry with regulations in an attempt to improve public health. Included in that are draft regulations around the labelling and marketing of food.

One of the proposed regulations prohibits manufacturers using healthy-sounding descriptions or names such as “nutri” or “well”  on sugar-laden products such as “health bars”.

Show's Stories