'Fake food' spurring the rise in obesity

31 August 2016 - 12:05 By WENDY KNOWLER
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

In many countries, South Africa included, the same socio-economic circumstances lead to both stunting in malnourished children and obesity: the so-called double burden.

But while improving the lives of the people in Brazil’s poorest region saw the percentage of stunted children reduce dramatically to just 6% - from a high of 55% in 1974 - it had no effect on the obesity rate.

In fact, said Carlos Monteiro, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, that country’s obesity rate has leapt from 11% in 2003 to today’s 21%.

Speaking Tuesday night at the World Public Health Nutrition Association’s World Nutrition Congress, co-hosted by the University of the Western Cape, Monteiro said factors such as the reduction of “absolute poverty” and access to health services hadn’t reduced the obesity rate at all.

What had changed, he said, was that real food; traditional foods such as rice, beans, casava and milk, had largely been replaced by “fake food” - ultra processed products pedalled by a few powerful global food companies, such as snacks, ready meals, confectionary and fizzy drinks.

The eating of regular, shared meals - mindful eating - had largely been replaced by mindless eating of processed meals, often alone, Monteiro said.

Sales of processed food were saturated in the developed world, but there was a huge potential for sales in the developing world, he said.

Dr Yogan Naidoo, Director-General in the Department of Health, picked up on the topic when reading a speech on behalf of health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.

South Africa should learn from Brazil’s experience and “curb the tentacles of the transnational corporations”, he said.

“The problem is their food is cheap, easily available and it tastes nice.”

It’s a theme that will feature in many of the congress’ symposium topics.

Co-hosted by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, the congress ends on Friday.