What is South Africa eating? A lot of meat says new Nielsen study

Unilever – under its Knorr brand – has released findings from its 2021 study on ‘Understanding the eating habits of the SA population’ compiled by market measurement firm, NielsenIQ, during the annual Plate of the Nation virtual roundtable event 2021.

The report aims to understand the eating habits of South Africans and the challenges they face in adopting to a balanced plate. The report also provides a view on the improvement of South Africans’ accessibility, attitude and behaviour towards foods.

Based on factors affecting consumer behaviour since the start of the Covid- 19 pandemic, the study found that many South Africans are giving up luxuries and focusing on the buying of necessities with cost being the primary consideration.

According to the Nielsen report, with the ongoing declines in household income, and being financially worse off due to COVID-19, South African consumers’ current ability to spend is much lower (66%) than global average (48%) as such, people consider healthy food to be accessible, but rather expensive.

The Plate of the Nation study is based on an in-depth questionnaire conducted amongst the South African population aged 16+ comprising males and females of all races within the LSM 1-10 in urban and rural regions in South Africa. 

To understand the composition of the plate as well as understanding the attitudes towards food, what is consumed and the link to health; the study found that:

  • 90% of South Africans are meat eaters, flexitarians (9%), vegetarians (3%), pescatarians (0.5%) and vegan (0.2%); and as such, this demonstrates an increase of meat eaters in 2021 compared to 2020 (84%).
  • South Africans eat an average of 2 meals per day and there is a general decline in breakfast consumption.
  • In South Africa, there is decrease in meal occasions, 64% eat weekday breakfast, weekday lunch (71%), weekday dinner (83%), weekend breakfast (49%), weekend lunch (59%) and weekend dinner (66%).
  • Breakfast remains the most carbohydrate (46%) heavy meal of the day with the least fruit and vegetables (4%), while lunch (48%) and dinner (68%) have meat as more of a focus.
  • South Africa’s health status of non-communicable food related diseases remain consistent from (14%) the previous year, 82% claims they are not suffering from any non-communicable diseases.

Knorr would like to help South Africa move towards a better food future by providing stakeholders,  retailers and consumers with information regarding how and what the nation is eating and how it impacts on South Africa’s eating journey.

The pandemic’s impact on food choices

The decline in household income due to COVID-19’s effect on businesses has left many South African consumers financially worse off. As such, this has created a situation where people are eating whatever they can afford. This in turn means that children are more likely to eat what their parents eat.

While other people consider healthy food to be accessible, it is also considered to be expensive, as more people still have a low understanding of what a balanced plate looks like.

With people trying to eat healthy and consuming essential foods, there is a decline in the consumption of luxuries and treats such as chocolate, sweet biscuits, nuts and popcorn. Consumers are focusing on essential foods and opting to bulk buy to fit within their financial means.

Consumers have deemed fresh food, staples and dairy to be essential foods but eat meat on a daily basis. The findings show that 46% of South Africans eat more meat every day, 2-3 times per week in total (46%), once a week (7%) and 2-3 times per month (1%). This has shown a decline in people substituting beans for meat.

The accessibility of healthy food

The study further reports that information-seeking from friends and family, as well as health professionals, has declined with social media becoming more of a key information source as people are confined more to their homes.

The exponential growth of e-commerce has been another factor that contributed to the growth rate of unemployment, as brick and mortar businesses were declining due to retailers finding ways of doing business online while still adhering to the lockdown regulations.

The tough economic atmosphere in South Africa due to Covid-19 has led to the decline of -8% in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, leading most South Africans to prioritise spending on food products. Although 83% of South Africans believe food prices are increasing, they buy in bulk or on promotion to combat the higher costs.

Consumer confidence remains low due to 68% of the respondents feeling that their financial situation has worsened while 52% only have money for food, shelter and the basics. 

In efforts to help get South Africa to eat better and adapt to eating in a way that is good for them, some additional findings in the report included recommendations on the ideal plate composition:

  • 33% vegetables
  • 32% starch
  • 15% dairy
  • 12% meat
  • 8% fats & oils

“We are far from the ideal plate as vegetable composition should be 33% of the plate and we at 14%, with small changes to our plates we can collectively move towards reaching the ideal plate composition, says Vuyo Henda, Foods Southern Africa Marketing Director – Unilever South Africa.

“We want people to know that they can make an impact by simply changing what they eat and it starts with what’s on their plate. Food businesses have a huge responsibility to educate the masses about eating better for a balanced plate.”

Knorr wants to reinvent food for humanity in three ways: champion dietary diversity, encourage the consumption of plant-based meals and develop more sustainable ways to grow and produce food.

About the study: The Plate of the Nation study is led by Knorr to help South Africa move towards a better food future by providing stakeholders with information regarding how and what the nation is eating and how it impacts South Africa’s health. It also aims to help create a source of information that stakeholders can tap into in order to shape the health of the nation.

Source: Unilever