How invested is SA's food industry in nourishing the nation? Not very

06 September 2019 - 13:50
The country's biggest food manufacturers are falling short when it comes to nutrition, a survey has revealed. File image
The country's biggest food manufacturers are falling short when it comes to nutrition, a survey has revealed. File image
Image: 123RF/fesenko

South Africa’s food and beverage industry is mostly paying lip service to improving the nutrition of the nation.

That was clear in the research conducted by Lisa Ronquest-Ross for her PhD on whether the industry is doing enough to improve nutrition for all South Africans, which she shared with delegates of the SA Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) at its congress in Gauteng this week.

She took the Access To Nutrition Index (ATNI) - developed in the Netherlands to measure the private sector’s role in nutrition - and adapted it for South Africa, before applying it to the country’s biggest food manufacturers - Tiger Brands, Clover and Pioneer Foods.

Having examined the companies’ annual reports and websites for their commitments to nutrition between 2013 and 2016, she found that while all used words such as “nourish”, “nature” and “nutrition” in their vision statements, there were no explicit links or evidence pointing to what the companies meant by those references.

This in a country with a burden of both over and under nutrition; 65% of women being overweight or obese; one in five children being permanently physically and intellectually stunted due to severe malnutrition in their first 1,000 days of life, massive Vitamin A and iron deficiencies, and more than 7% of adults being diabetic.

In order to live up to their mission statements on nutrition, Ronquest-Ross said, food manufacturers needed to draw up a formal nutrition policy and integrate it into their core business strategy with the commitment of senior management.

"The growth in packaged foods is 10 times faster in emerging markets," she said. "So the food and beverage industry has a central role to play in giving consumers access to healthy products and influencing their food consumption habits."

Without singling out the companies, Ronquest-Ross said there was a general lack of investment in research and development of their products' nutrition profiles, "except for product quality".

"They should be more transparent around their product formulation targets and nutrient profiling, and include fortification," she said.

Ronquest-Ross also found that there was no commitment to making products more affordable, with the exception of Clover’s Masakhane project.

She recommended that the companies develop and disclose strategies to create products which were healthy, affordable and accessible, and preferably fortified, to address specific nutrient deficiencies. A great example was an extruded yellow pea fortified snack which is sold throughout India at a very low price, via a network of rural women, she said.

Ronquest-Ross’s other findings included:

  • the companies failed to publicly commit to responsible marketing to children; and
  • employee health and wellness programmes were all about safety and health compliance, with no mention of initiatives such as supporting breast-feeding mothers.

Nigel Sunley, a Johannesburg-based food science consultant, said after Ronquest-Ross’s presentation that South Africa’s food industry was obsessed with food safety in the wake of the listeriosis tragedy. Yet, he said, people were dying daily from noncommunicable diseases due to poor nutrition.

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