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Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) explores nutrition and the future of food systems

​The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) and Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA) hosted a joint symposium on Thursday 17th October 2019 at the School of Tourism & Hospitality (STH), Bunting Road campus. The symposium focused on the evolution of diets: how technology will impact our eating habits and advocated for healthier lifestyle changes as South Africa faces an ongoing obesity threat.

ferl posterAccording to the Department of Health, South Africa is experiencing a quadruple threat of disease, with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) being one of the leading public health concerns- adding further burden to the already strained national health system. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity has escalated at an alarming rate and is not limited to the adult population but is also emerging in young children.

The speakers and audience members present at the symposium included registered nutritionists, biotechnologists, policy makers and researchers all discussing the nutrition transition and the impact of technology on our diets specifically around obesity and NCDs.

Dr Hema Kesa (Director: FERL) welcomed guests and speakers and noted how our diets have evolved drastically over the years.

”We have seen a movement from plant-based, indigenous, fibre rich diets to to those that are high in refined starches, sugar, salt, fats, processed foods and animal sourced products.”

The event coincided with the National Nutrition Week (NNOW) and National Obesity Week which is observed from 9 to 15 October and from 15 to 19 October 2019 respectively.

The aim is to create awareness among consumers about obesity and the importance of healthy eating alongside a host of preventable diseases that can be attributed to unhealthy lifestyles. The theme of this year’s NNOW is “make eating whole foods a way of life”.

Ms Linda Drummond a registered dietician and nutrition consultant added that there are a number of factors affecting our diet choices. These include, amongst others:

  • Individual and lifestyle factors
  • No facilities for refrigeration
  • Healthy foods physically inaccessible
  • Ultra processed foods
  • Perceived cost of healthy foods
  • Environmental influence
  • Portion sizes of purchased foods

Ms Rebone Ntsie, Director of Nutrition at the National Department of Health discussed the prevalence and impact of processed foods, posing the question, Food processing: friend or foe of obesity?

“While food processing is neccesary in our daily lives, ultra-processed foods typically contain a wide range of food additives such as stabilisers, emulsifiers, preservatives, flavourings and colourings. These are the opposite of whole foods, which are unprocessed like fresh vegetables or minimally processed such as brown rice.”

Dr Alex Dimitri Tchuenchieu Kamgain a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at FERL argued that there is a need for increased indigenous food consumption in South Africa in order to combat NCDs.

Recent studies have indicated that many traditional and indigenous plant-based foods are a rich source of human health relevant bioactive profiles with numerous health benefits. However greater consumer awareness is needed around local foods for health, nutrition and to strengthen local economies.

The Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) official launched in August 2018 and established its presence through an increased demand towards enhancing the lifestyles of all people and communities who align themselves with nutrition and health through active research studies. The laboratory is driven through interdisciplinary and collaborative structures of UJ’s School of Tourism and Hospitality.

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