01/08/2012 Visitors to McDonalds enjoy their meal in the CBD. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Mlungisi Mthembu

The rise of “Big Food” is causing South Africans to become supersized – and making them unhealthy, a new study claims.

The study led by Ehimario Igumbor, of the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health, found that people opted to buy cheaper, less nutritious food instead of the more expensive, healthier food at Big Food supermarkets.

Big Food companies were defined as “large commercial entities that increasingly dominate key components of the food and beverage environment”. Out of more than 1 800 food manufacturing companies in South Africa, Big Food manufacturers account for a “disproportionately large amount of sales”.

Igumbor said that while there had been regulation passed on tobacco and alcohol, the food industry was largely unregulated. “Poor food choices have an impact on non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity,” he said.

The study, commissioned by the science journal Plos Medicine, found that healthier foods cost between 10 percent and 60 percent more in supermarkets than less healthy foods when compared on a weight basis. Cash-strapped consumers were buying cheaper food, which wasn’t as healthy.

“Refined cereals and foods with added sugar and fat are among the lowest-cost sources of energy in rural supermarkets. [This makes] nutrient-poor products, such as biscuits, margarine and oil-heavy snacks, an effective means to cheaply consume energy,” the study said.

The study argues that Big Food retailers have made their products more affordable by cutting out traditional wholesalers and dealing in larger volumes.

The scientists called for urgent action to counter the negative effects of changes in SA’s food environment. “This action should include a combination of accelerated efforts to educate the public about the adverse consequences of consuming easily available but unhealthy foods.”

One of the biggest changes over the past few decades was that consumers, who used to shop at “mom-and-pop shops”, were now shopping at supermarkets.

“The supermarkets have displaced traditional food retailers such as small convenience stores, public markets and spazas as the primary place where South Africans purchase their food. In a pilot study in the Ciskei it was found that 68.4 percent of households in villages used supermarkets. The big companies were able to out-compete local wholesalers and small retailers on cost and quality in most products on offer.”

Co-author David Sanders said: “Wholefood such as meat, fish and dairy products are quite expensive to produce. Processed foods are industrial and the amount of wholefood in them is much less, which makes them cheaper.”

Meanwhile, Pick n Pay’s Peter Arnold said they would advise customers to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, “which are extremely healthy, and to buy them loose rather than pre-packed”.