South Africa’s Eating Habits, Uncovered

South Africa’s Eating Habits, Uncovered

South Africa is, virtually in its entirety, a meat eating country, a report released this week shows. For those who eschew all meat to shout the odds at the rest of us, demanding we change our evil carnivorous ways, is like a guppy yelling at a killer whale, insisting it switch to a diet of kelp and phytoplankton. The killer whale will find it a mere irritation, and gobble it up with several kingklip, three yellowtails, a shoal of pilchards and the rest of the guppy’s family and friends.

That South Africa is almost entirely a meat eating country is not the only takeaway (sorry) of Nielsen’s Understanding the Eating Habits of the South African Population report, but the blurb above got you reading, so let’s take a closer look.

The survey, commissioned by Knorr (Unilever Foods Refreshment), found that 84% of South Africans eat meat almost every day, that the average SA adult’s plate consists mainly of starch and meat, with little by way of vegetables, that meat is eaten on average four times a week, with poultry (read: chicken) and red meat favoured, and that – not to put too fine a point on it – South Africa has “a meat eating culture”. This last point tops the report’s five key findings.

The four other key findings were:

  • Composition (of the average national diet) is “far off the recommended plate – too much starch and meat, too little vegetables”;
  • Kids eat the same as adults, so there is unlikely to be a change in future behaviour without intervention;
  • Vegetables are perceived as healthy but this is not reflected in their consumption behaviour, and
  • Accessibility (to healthy foods including vegetables) is easier, but affordability is a barrier.

In my opinion, as a journalist who has spent many years observing what people eat, the blame for the nation’s lack of appetite for fresh vegetables can largely be placed at the front door of those who produce and market the mass food brands we find in all of the supermarket fridges and freezers; at the feet of fast food chains that offer chips and few alternatives as a side dish, and at the front door of the many restaurants, including some “fine dining” establishments, where vegetables are merely a drably steamed afterthought, crisp and safe to eat, yes, but with scarcely any effort put into them.

As a home cook who regularly makes deliciously garlicky, lemony sliced courgettes as a side, who loves creaming up spinach with nutmeg, garlic and a squeeze of lemon, and who glazes carrots and finishes them with butter, parsley and plenty of black pepper, I find the lack of imagination of our restaurateurs with regard to cooking decent vegetable dishes nothing less than gobsmacking. And yes, some top restaurants are as guilty as the fast food chains. Seriously, what is so impressive about steaming veg and then arranging them on the plate with artistic finesse? Come on.

Knorr, as the instigator of the survey, deserves kudos for taking the trouble to approach Nielsen to conduct it and present its findings. The brand’s stated intention was to “help South Africa move towards a better food future by providing stakeholders (government, NGOs, industry, retailers, etc.) with information regarding how and what the nation is eating and how it impacts South Africa’s health”. Under “Research Objectives” it states: “The main purpose of this research is to create a source of information that stakeholders can tap into in order to shape the health of the nation.”

These objectives were divided into four categories:

  • Understand the composition of the plate of the nation across the different demographics (% of meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans, flexitarians);
  • Understand the attitudes towards food, what is consumed and the link to health;
  • Understanding if there is an improvement in access to healthy foods, and
  • Understand the challenges in consuming healthy foods.

One of the biggest surprises, for me, was the finding that the “average South African eats two meals per day”. Resoundingly: as many as 84% of us eat two meals, not three, a day. I had thought I was in the minority in this, yet it’s almost standard nationwide.

If you divided the national “plate” into percentages of what is eaten on average, it comes out as: 41% starch (the mind’s eye is seeing piles of deep-fried chips), 26% meat, 13% vegetables, 9% fats and oils, 8% dairy, and 3% legumes. These figures, the report notes, are “consistent across all regions and demographics”.

Comparatively, the report notes that the recommended plate makeup would be: 33% vegetables, 32% starch, 15% dairy, 12% meat products (this includes eggs), and 8% fats and oils. They also include legumes in the 12% “meat”. The statistics are taken from the “Eatwell plate composition” as defined by the University of Cambridge and Britain’s National Health Service.

If you thought most South African kids chowed down chicken nuggets and fish fingers while their parents had steak, egg and chips or boerewors rolls with (yes, chips) – or shared a Chateaubriand with Béarnaise and pommes frites – this is far from the truth. The report found that no less than 77% of children eat the same meals as their parents in South Africa. Just 16% eat some of the same meals as their parents and some different meals, and only 6% always eat a different meal. This conclusion is based on research among children aged four to 16 living at home. And the “plate composition” of the South African child is almost identical to that of adults: 43% starch, 24% meat/eggs, 12% veg, 9% fats and oils, 8% dairy, and 3% legumes.

We eat meat four times a week on average (bear in mind that some eat meat every day) and poultry (no surprises) comes out tops at 92%, followed by red meat (83%), seafood (53%) and pork (45%). Asked what “meat replacements” they used, respondents cited beans (66%), mushrooms (24%), lentils (18%), “textured veg protein” (17%), soya (10%) and paneer, the Indian cheese, at 1%. Another 27% cited using no veg as a meat substitute.

Starch, by contrast, is eaten on average six times a week: bread 93%, rice 88%, potatoes/sweet potatoes 80%, mieliepap 78%, pasta 55%, pumpkin and butternut 54%, breakfast cereals 45%, and noodles and oats each 40%. Bringing up the rear are couscous, quinoa and barley at just 5%, which may be food for thought for activist-vegans keen to conquer the national palate.

The most popular starch replacement was white beans (37%), cauliflower (30% – thank you, Tim Noakes), green beans (21%), eggplant (brinjals) at 9%, courgettes (baby marrows) at 3% and … no sign of kale anywhere, sorry. But as many as 48% did not substitute these vegetables when they could rather have their starch.

Average vegetable consumption is four times a week, with cheaper fruit and veg mostly consumed. The list of most commonly eaten veg is topped by tomatoes and onions, followed by cabbage and only then carrots. In fifth spot is – no, not kale – beetroot, ahead of spinach, followed by lettuce, peppers (which are expensive) cucumber and avocados (also pricey although they will be cheaper for the next few weeks while they’re in season), mielies, beans, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, peas and spinach.

One big surprise there is the relative unpopularity of spinach, which grows easily and abundantly in most of the country, which makes it virtually free for anyone who can first invest in a packet of spinach seeds and thereafter just keep propagating them. As for kale, kale, wherefore art thou? At the slick city Saturday markets, no doubt.

The most popular fruit is bananas (77%), followed by apples and pears in a tie at 72%, mangoes 50%, citrus 35%, guavas 33%, stone fruits and melons both 30%, berries 21%, granadillas 16% and kiwi fruit at 12%. Not much of a showing for goji berries then.

Only 31% of respondents claimed to eat healthily, an honesty that is quite refreshing. Of the sample, 46% said they eat healthily but spoil themselves on occasion, 23% were unlikely always to eat healthily (this percentage was largely rural and poor with scant access to “healthy food”), and 31% said they were most likely always to eat healthy food and were largely white and vegetarian.

So, well done, Unilever, in commissioning this report. Unilever trades in packed products (cans, cartons etc). A quick Google of products on their website dishes up just two “Side Dishes”: Knorr Professional Mash Flakes, and Fine Foods Instant Mashed Potato. Intrigued as to what else their Fine Foods brand offers (the name does suggest, well, something loftier than instant mash, no?), I ventured further. I didn’t find much: Fine Foods chutney, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce and chilli sauce; vinegar sachets; and pourable mustard sauce.

The cynic in me did wonder about Unilever’s products in relation to this evident quest to find out how the nation can eat more healthily. So I put two questions to Knorr:

Is Knorr going to use the findings as a blueprint for re-examining its food lines and possibly adapting them to make them (or some of them) healthier for SA consumers?

And is Knorr considering using the information gleaned from the report to introduce new food lines that would be healthier options for SA consumers?

They replied:

“We are most certainly reviewing our existing product lines with the intention of making them more nutritious. In addition we are also developing new product offerings to make healthy eating more accessible and convenient for consumers.

“We are looking into incorporating Future 50 ingredients into our existing and new product ranges once we have local supply and sourcing secured.

“Hence the partnership with the WWF and Wensleydale farms to make this a reality.”

A press release states that the “Knorr purpose is to reinvent food for humanity in three ways: champion dietary diversity, more plant based meals and more sustainable ways to grow and produce food”. 

The brand refers to a report published in February 2019, 50 Future Foods, which is apposite and worth being familiar with if we’re keen to eat more sustainably and wish to forge a healthier diet.

The 50 foods aren’t anything you’d normally expect to find in a packet of Knorr chicken soup. It will be interesting to see what they come up with. Read about those 50 foods here. DM


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