South Africa has a big fat problem that is spiralling out of control. The 2016 South Africa Demographics and Health Survey stated that nearly 70% of women and just more than 30% of the male population are obese.
Using a sample of women aged 15 and above, the report defined obesity as a body mass index (BMI) greater or equal to 35. BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by their height.
While obesity is arguably categorised as a disease, it can also be a predisposition to other health conditions.
“Excessive weight gain puts people at higher risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes,” says dietician Lethlabile Makone.
However, the outcome need not be morbid if it is bound by the thread of a fibre-rich diet. Dietary fibre is the roughage found in fruit, legumes and grains.
“Fibre helps with weight maintenance; it keeps you fuller for longer, allowing you to eat less,” says Makone. Likening fibre to a broom, Makone says it pushes toxins out of the body.
“When you eat something fatty, the fibre binds it so that it does not get absorbed by the body. The absence of fibre means the fats from your processed foods accumulate in your body, arteries and veins, putting you at risk of hypertension, diabetes and forms of heart disease,” she says.
Given its health benefits, particularly with weight management, the idea of fibre has been linked to diets that emphasise the consumption of vegetables, nuts and lean meat.
“I try to eat healthily, but I have only so much money,” says Rumbidzaishe Nakah, a third-year Wits law student. “Mid-month, I gravitate towards cheaper food.” That cheaper food includes bread-based meals such as sandwiches from home or a kota, which costs about R20.
Bread, a wheat derivative and carbohydrate rich food could be an invaluable source of fibre in a South African economic context. Close to two billion pan-baked loaves were commercially produced in the country from October 2019 to September 2020 according to South African Grain Information Service (Sagis) statistics. This is 35 times more than the South African population.
Bread can be as cheap as R5 for Shoprite’s 600g brown loaf. According to Statistics South Africa’s April 2020 national poverty line, bread is a staple food, particularly for the approximately 55.5% (30.3 million people) of the population living in poverty at the national upper poverty line (R1 268 a month).
The South African Chamber of Baking (SACB), a non-profit organisation that has been promoting baking industry common interests for over 70 years, is aware of the role bread plays in South African consumerism.
Together with the Consumer Goods Council and the Department of Health (DoH), the SACB is working on a campaign to encourage consumers to have more fibre by eating brown bread. If successful the campaign, which will be rolled out next year, will see a 60% preference for brown bread over white.
According to data from Statistics South Africa, for every R100 spent by consumers in South Africa, R0.46 is spent on white bread, which means people in South Africa spend more money on white bread, which records spending of R0.36 for every R100 spent by consumers. But according to current Sagis statistics, brown bread production sits at 49.5% — a 0.5% upper hand over white bread.
“Growing up, bread was a great part of my life. It was always my school lunch,” says Thembela Ntlemeza, a management and innovation master’s student at the Wits Business School, who was raised by her grandmother in Bethal, Mpumalanga. “My grandmother always bought brown bread,” she says.
However, while this was the healthier choice in hindsight, Ntlemeza says brown bread’s cheaper price was always the decisive factor. “I used to look forward to eating white bread as a child, which was often on pay day,” she says.
“We need to inform and educate consumers about the importance of having a healthy gut,” SACB executive director Geoff Penny says. “By consuming more fibre through increased consumption of whole grains and bran contained in brown and whole wheat bread, consumers will benefit from improved gut health.
“[The campaign] will support the DoH’s ‘Healthy Food Options’ efforts to reduce the unacceptably high incidence of NCDs [non-communicable diseases] in South Africa,” Penny says.
First-year drama student Siwakhile Maseko says while he is aware of the benefits of fibre-rich food, he would rather eat white than whole wheat bread. “Whole wheat bread has a weird taste and weird stuff in it. The random seeds in it, too, do not sit well with me,” he says.
The National Health Service, which provides healthcare for all UK citizens, recommends a fibre intake of about 30g a day. A 700g Albany brown loaf has 5.6g worth of dietary fibre in 80g of bread. Each bread slice is about 40g. The average person would have to eat about five slices of bread to reach the required dietary intake.
While a slice is relatively low in glycaemic carbohydrates, it tips the scale when it is quintupled. Nutrition-based Healthline recommends a carbohydrate intake of between 225g and 325g of carbohydrates, so five slices of bread count as a third of a person’s carbohydrate intake.
Makone says as much as bread is cheap and accessible, it would be impractical to rely on bread alone for dietary fibre. “You can actually have a fibre-rich diet on an income of R1 000 a month,” the dietician says, adding that people can buy varied but limited amounts of fruit and vegetables weekly to avoid spoilage.
Bread therefore presents a paradoxical response to the South African health crisis.
In his inaugural presidential address, Nelson Mandela declared: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all,” to redress the socioeconomic imbalances in South Africa. Perhaps Tata’s iconic speech may nudge us towards knowing that we do need to eat bread: at least some of it will be healthy. — Ntombi Mkandhla
This article first appeared in Wits Vuvuzela