Load shedding a health hazard as it fuels fast-food consumption

With load shedding having become a crushing everyday reality for South Africans over the past few weeks, it is not only the country’s economy that is being adversely affected, but people’s health is also at risk as prolonged rolling blackouts are altering diets and eating patterns. 

As the beleaguered Eskom continues to cycle through load shedding stages, South African households have had to come to grips with electricity outages of more than six hours a day, often in the evenings, disrupting the preparation of meals. 

The Tiger Brand Foundation (TBF) operations manager Karl Muller, notes that aside from the financial losses for the corporate sector, load shedding also directly contributes to a huge rise in food waste. 

“A lot of food is spoiled as a result of load shedding. Frozen foods can defrost and food items that need refrigeration warm up, while food that is mid-cook or needs a complete cycle in an oven, such as bread, is often ruined by blackouts,” says Muller. 

As a result, he explains, many South African household are less likely to risk buying expensive food items, such as meat, in case it gets spoiled during prolonged episodes of load shedding. Due to this and due to meal preparation often being disrupted, some households are turning to ready-made meals. 

Affecting food choices 

“There is increasing evidence that load shedding is affecting South Africans’ food choices, which is not good news for our health as a nation. People are likely to turn to fast-food when fresh food has either been spoilt or cannot be cooked due to power outages,” says Muller. 

Despite the current economic crunch, South Africans still spend a significant amount on fast-food, with demand being driven by convenience and accessibility. According to an Allied Market Research report, the South African fast food market size was valued at $2.7 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $4.9 billion by 2026, registering a compound annual growth rate of 7.9% from 2019 to 2026. 

Moreover, it is predicted that the easy availability of fast-food products is set to influence the cooking practices of households, in other words decrease the frequency of home cooking, while increasing people’s dependency on fast-food products. 

While many restaurants do suffer a loss of business due to load shedding, some have adapted and flourished. In 2019, media reports showed that a US-based burger chain, with hundreds of outlets across South Africa, achieved record sales in March that year, during Stage 4 load shedding, by installing generators at all its stores. 

“Fast-food is generally unhealthy, being calory-rich and lacking nutrition. Regular consumption of fast-food has been linked to various ailments and health conditions, including obesity. Studies show that among South African adults, 68% of women and 31% of men are either overweight or obese, based on body mass index,” says Muller. 

Childhood obesity 

“While seemingly unrelated problems, undernutrition, obesity and overweight are largely a repercussion of people compelled, to limited or no food choices due to poverty. Childhood obesity is also a growing global epidemic, with overweight and obesity during childhood and adolescence rising alarmingly in South Africa.” 

Muller notes that the accessibility of fast-food, together with the driving force of load shedding is putting people’s health at risk as obesity poses a wide range of health problems, including being associated with type II diabetes and heart disease. 

“Nutrition education is critical in guiding people to make the best possible food choices with the money they have available. School-based interventions that promote healthy interventions, like a warm nutritious breakfast, snacks with fruits as opposed to sweets have also shown to be effective to combat obesity,” he says. 

“In recent years, South Africa introduced legislation in a bid to reduce the intake of salt, as well as a tax on sugar. Sugar taxes were seen as a way to reduce consumption of sweetened beverages.” 

Government also introduced other policies to address malnutrition, such as the Integrated Nutrition Programme and National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). School-based approaches and community initiatives have shown encouraging results, relieving hunger and increasing school attendance. 

“Tiger Brands Foundation established an in-school breakfast nutrition programme to complement the lunch provided by the Department of Basic Education as part of the NSNP. The Foundation’s in-school breakfast programme now reaches 95 schools across all nine provinces in South Africa, and provides nutrition to 74 637 learners per day, with a total of 78 510 beneficiaries,” Muller concludes.