Fighting stunting and obesity with food

Non-profit organisation (NPO), Meals on Wheels Community Services South Africa is dedicated to providing wholesome dishes to impoverished people in Limpopo.

Meals on Wheels Limpopo area director, Mpho Rantsoabe says the organisation combats stunting and obesity in communities because the meals they serve are well-balanced.

Fighting for health

According to Grow Great, a campaign working on raising awareness about stunting, one in four South African children under the age of five are stunted.

Meals on Wheels says stunted children, on average, perform worse in school than their non-stunted counterparts, are more likely to be unemployed as adults, are at higher risk of getting diseases like diabetes and hypertension, and are vulnerable to being trapped in inter-generational cycles of poverty.

“By serving a balanced meal, we’re combating stunting and obesity, which are caused by not eating the right food or lack of it,” says Rantsoabe.

Obesity [can be] caused by eating [junk food]. What we do is that we serve a balanced meal. [By doing so], we are fighting obesity and combating stunted growth, which is caused by a lack of essential nutrients in the body.

We train our project leaders and volunteers so they can serve a balanced meal and not just serve food for the sake of serving food.”

Beyond the plate 

Rantsoabe says they also run developmental skills projects such as arts and crafts and agricultural projects to address food security.

“In Thohoyandou, we [provide] the same people we are feeding with agricultural skills. They also fundraise for the project [so they are] able to look after themselves. We have a poultry and vegetable project.

In all our centres we encourage them to be engaged in developmental skills. Due to lack of land, not all our centres have an agricultural project but there are those who do recycling, knitting, sewing, and physical activities, especially [for] the elderly people. It differs to centre to centre depending on the resources available,” he says.

Making a difference 

Pensioner, Nyawasedza Magadze (79) from Thohoyandou says the project assisted her to increase her activity levels and stay away from alcohol.

“The centre is helpful because they feed us with nutritious [food] every day. We do farming, sewing and a lot of activities so that we can stay alive,” says Magadze. “I used to drink a lot of traditional beer but now I have reduced it because I got many things to do. I even play soccer.”

Rantsoabe says the centre only caters to impoverished people who are unemployed, living with disabilities, and pensioners.

“The need out there is far greater than we can offer. In the future, we would like to build more facilities, but at the moment we are limited by funds. If we are able to raise more funds we would be able to expand in the province.”

Most of the centres operate Monday to Friday and some offer two meals a day while others offer meals three times a week due to lack of resources.

Meals on Wheels was founded by the late Dr Denis Baird in 1964, serving 16 meals with one vehicle to the community of Duncanville in East London. Today, there are over three hundred branches in the country, with nine in Limpopo. – Health-e News 

Hidden dangers in food marketed to children

Salt, sugar, fat – these are the predominant ingredients in foods that are advertised to children, a study shows.

Worldwide the prevalence of childhood obesity and its related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have increased dramatically and South African children are part of these concerning statistics.

The figures 

“Prevalence of overweight in children (2-14 years) in the country amounts to 16.5% in girls and 7.1% in boys, with obesity contributing to a further 11.5% in girls and 4.7% in boys,” shows a study entitled ‘Branding and cartoon character usage in food marketing to children’ by Janlie van Lieshout, a registered dietician at Potchefstroom Hospital.

The purpose of the study is to describe the frequency of television advertising to children, the usage of branding and cartoon characters in the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children aged 3 to 18 years in South Africa, and was done to obtain evidence to support the policy development.

“Research has indicated that marketing practices aimed at children mainly promote foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS),” she says.

“When looking further into advertisements of foods to South African children, we saw that they have an influence on the dietary behaviour of a child, and these influences the rest of NCDs and children being overweight in South Africa.”

The impact of such advertising 

According to Van Lieshout, food branding influences children’s nutritional knowledge, food choices, purchasing and dietary behaviours, and can contribute to being overweight. Her study notes that marketing, using cartoon characters and branding, has increased the loyalty and product choice in children.

The study shows that, a total of 4 916 advertisements were shown on the free-to-air TV channels of which 1 030 (21%) were food advertisements. These ads aimed at children mostly included products such as sweets, confectionery, snack foods, sugared beverages, pre-sugared breakfast cereals, sweetened milk, and dairy products. Healthy food advertisements, on the other hand, accounted for the minority (1.4%) of ads.

Powerful tool

Mariaan Wicks, a senior lecturer at North West University says: “Marketing is a very powerful tool and we should, therefore, limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and try to promote healthy food marketing.”

“Food branding influences food choices and influences food preferences. We eat what we like, so, unfortunately, children at a very critical period of their lives don’t understand the link between food and health,” says Wicks.

Regulating the industry

Wicks’ research is aimed to develop a framework for regulating the marketing of high in fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS) foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children in South Africa with the support of an appropriate nutrient profiling model.

This framework was submitted the Department of Health in 2017 and is currently awaiting response “We recommend that this framework is legislated to regulate the marketing of foods to children in South Africa to support the Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Obesity,” Wicks says.

Although advertising is not the only contributing factor leading to obesity in children, it is considered to be one of many factors contributing to children being overweight. “Therefore, it is necessary for the food industry to engage in responsible food marketing aimed at children in order to take one step forward in the prevention of obesity and NCDs in children,” she says. – Health-e News 

Monatea: The new no-sugar drink

With obesity levels on the rise globally and locally, and the link between it and the high intake of sugar, a newly launched drink is a welcomed reprieve. 

“We saw that South Africa lacked a beverage for people who were aware of the harm of excessive sugar intake and potentially problematic artificial sweeteners,” says Tsepo Montsi, founder of  Monatea.

“As such, South Africans were left with no alternative to obesity and diabetes-promoting products.”

A healthy alternative 

Montsi has developed a unique, unsweetened ready-to-drink beverage, also called Monatea.

This is an unsweetened, sparkling, cold-brewed Rooibos and botanical iced tea. Each variant contains a specially paired variety of fynbos as well as botanical superfoods, he says, and is also is a potent source of phytonutrients and antioxidants.

According to Montsi, the first step in combating the obesity problem is to provide alternative health-conscious products.

He says their range is 100% natural and contains zero sugar, zero sweeteners, zero preservatives and zero colourants.

The danger of too much sugar 

This company’s mission is to spread awareness about the impact of excessive sugar and sweetener intake, as well as bring clarity to health claims that often leave consumers with an inaccurate assessment of it.

“We have found the term ‘no added sugar’ [is] used in a manner that implies there is little sugar within the labelled product,” he says.

However, according to Montsi, what isn’t communicated is that while no cane sugar was actually added, alternatives such as honey or fruit juice are included which are sugar-rich in themselves. “Very often the resulting sugar content is quite comparable to cane sugar-sweetened beverages, but the wording ‘no added sugar’ implies otherwise.”

World Health Organisation guidelines recommend that to prevent obesity and tooth decay, adults and children should reduce their consumption of free sugars to less than 10% of their daily energy intake.

Excessive 

Montsi maintains that he doesn’t believe that sugar is evil, however, it’s no longer a secret that excessive sugar intake is extremely bad for the human body.

“It’s also well-known that the amount of sugar in the current serving sizes of sugary drinks is excessive, even with efforts to partially replace sugar with sweeteners. The jury is still out on sweeteners, and they may ultimately form part of the solution, but their definite metabolic effects (such as triggering insulin release) are extremely disconcerting.”

While it may be difficult to get away from their sugar addictions, in order to assist people with the transition towards unsweet and to recognise the possibility of moderate sugar intake, each of the Monatea’s variants is available lightly sweetened with a touch of cane sugar. “As far as we can tell, we have the lowest sugar levels in the market, and without sweeteners,” he adds.

Montsi says Monatea has enormous potential overseas and says they are already developing a line of loose leaf and powdered instant Monatea for the Chinese market. – Health-e News

Sugar Tax: How corporates lied to National Treasury

Sugar-sweetened beverage producers submitted evidence that was out of context and exaggerated in their appeal against South Africa’s proposed new sugar levy, research has found.

Coca-Cola, the Beverage Association of South Africa (BevSA) and the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa (AmCham) manipulated evidence in their bid to stop the government from implementing a sugar tax, new research shows.

In April 2018, South Africa introduced the Health Promotion Levy (HPL) — commonly known as the sugar tax — to discourage South Africans from drinking sugary drinks in an attempt to stem non-communicable diseases, particularly diabetes. In the initiation phase of the levy, affected stakeholders such as Coca-Cola, BevSA and AmCham made submissions to the Department of Health on why they supported or opposed the levy.

A 2019 study, published in Globalisation and Health journal, found the three companies submitted “evidence” to the South African National Treasury stating that tax on sugar would lead to big job losses in retail and farming and have little impact on public health.

“In general, the industry submissions we reviewed misrepresented scientific evidence and used unscrupulous accounting methods to try to advance corporate interests,” says Dr Gray Fooks, lead author of the study.

Dredging and tweaking data

The research shows sugar beverage producers provided false proof to support their claims. Data used in their submissions to Treasury were framed in a misleading manner, the study found. This included misquoting peer-reviewed studies, selecting quotes in favour of their agenda, omitting important information and exaggerating the economic impact of the sugar tax.

For instance, AmCham cited a 2013 report by Oxford Economics and the International Tax and Investment Center to claim the impact of sugary drinks “on health outcomes is uncertain and unproven”. But, according to the study, the quoted report did not examine the relationship between sugary drinks and health. Researchers also accuse Coca-Cola and BevSA of picking out phrases from peer-reviewed studies and “changing the emphasis and intended meaning of the original text to support their arguments”.

Additionally, the research says Coca-Cola and BevSA “dredged” data by drawing on trusted food balance figures produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN to demonstrate that sugar wasn’t responsible for a rise in obesity in South Africa and purposely selecting a specific time-period which misrepresented actual trends in sugar consumption. But Coca-Cola, AmCham and BevSA all stand by the submissions they made to Treasury.

“The recent report published in Globalisation and Health concludes that corporates misrepresent evidence to suit their own business initiatives. However, the AmCham submission, one of only three quoted in the report out of the 41 submissions, mainly spoke to the socio-economic impact,” AmCham explains.

Coca-Cola says it stands by its submission to Treasury and says levies such as the one on sugary drinks are not effective. The company’s response to Health-e, in part, reads: “We find the publication of this report more than three years after our submissions on the National Treasury’s policy paper on the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages to be unconstructive to the challenges associated with the HPL in South Africa. While neither Coca-Cola nor its bottling groups are opposed to the HPL, we believe that discriminatory taxes are ineffective because they only target one type of product in people’s dietary intake.”

Meanwhile, BevSA executive director Mapule Ncanywa says the organisation will not be drawn into the merits of the journal, because what is important is that the HPL is in force and its members are complying with it.

“BevSA stands by the submissions we have made during the discussions leading up to the implementation of the HPL. As is expected in a democratic society, there are always contending views in policy formulation, there are various submissions by other organisations and every literature is important and meant to assist government to make informed decisions,” she explains.

Fooks says the research highlights the vulnerability of African governments to corporates and hopes it is an eye-opener for those in power.

“Obesity and diet-related disease are the largest contributors to ill health globally. South Africa’s sugar tax is a critical part of efforts to tackle this public health crisis. One response to the South African government’s consultation, pulled together by the American Chamber of Commerce, read like a deceitful undergraduate essay,” he explains.

Same playbook, different players

Healthy Living Alliance programmes manager Lawrence Mbalati says sugar-related industries have taken a page from the tobacco and alcohol industries handbook by undermining governments efforts to ensure the health of the public is a priority.

“These lies are peddled to try and legitimise the unfounded and untested argument by the industry that the HPL has resulted in job losses. Earlier this year, Tongaat Hulett claimed 5,000 jobs were at risk due to implementation of the levy only to find that, rather, the company was embroiled in a cooperate governance scandal,” Mbalati says.

National Treasury would not respond to the findings of the study but referred Health-e to the Health Promotion Levy Bill, showing that the tax will not have a high job-loss effect as industries had submitted. In April, Treasury told Health-e any current estimates on job losses are “guesswork” and government would be assessing the jobs situation before the end of the year. Fooks says he commends the South African government for not falling for beverage industry tricks.

“What our research has found would be high comedy if the stakes weren’t so high,” he says.

Mbalati believes these companies should be held accountable for their actions.

“The misrepresentation and inaccurate information used to push back government implementing the health promotion levy sets a dangerous precedent. This can mislead policymakers in enacting important life-changing policy decisions and lose the opportunity to regulate business practices that endangers life.”