Higher chicken and egg prices spell trouble for low-income families

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South Africans are facing tough economic times this holiday season. Poultry producers have warned of an increase in the price of chicken and eggs. This carries major concerns about the nutritional needs of poor and working class families who rely on these as their main protein source. 

Protein is an important part of a healthy and well balanced diet. The protein in our diets comes mainly from food that we get from animals like meat, fish, chicken and dairy.

“If chicken gets a bit more expensive, then people – especially low-income earners won’t be able to afford it. And eggs are very good for children and pregnant women. So an increase in the price of both chicken and eggs might compromise some people’s nutrient intake,” says Professor Xikombiso Mbhenyane, head of the Division of Human Nutrition, and Research Chair in Food Environments, Nutrition and Health at Stellenbosch University. 

We get a lot more nutritional value from chicken than just protein.

“Chicken livers, giblets, and feet are lower in price, and more accessible. And the health benefits aren’t any less. Chicken livers even have iron which is not in white meat. So you find different kinds of nutrients in those chicken products.”

The increase in the cost of basic food adds to the country’s existing crisis. More than half of households where children live have reported going hungry. Food insecurity has ravaged households in the country recently with reports that one in five households have had to beg for food. Hunger and malnutrition have significant health consequences, especially for children. Almost a third of children under five years are stunted, and 48% hospital deaths in children are associated with moderate or severe acute malnutrition. 

“There is a project called ‘one-egg-a-day for children prevents malnutrition’. We are doing the project in the North West and in Worcester. But if there aren’t enough eggs, it’s going to cost the project,” she says. 

Suitable replacements

“People who are most dependent on chicken and eggs may find it difficult to find replacements which are still cost-effective. This is because chicken is usually much lower in cost per kg as compared to red meat. Healthiness is also a factor – chicken is white meat like fish, so we recommend people to eat more chicken than red meat,” says Mbhenyane. 

Yoghurt, buttermilk or cheese can be a good alternative to eggs as a protein source for children. But these products are expensive.

“Beans and legumes are also very good and those are cheap. So they can replace or provide protein that we get in eggs. But it’s of a different quality because it’s plant based. So the mitigation for consumption is quite tricky,” she says. 

Eggs are particularly hard to replace because they are also a key ingredient in the production and baking of other food sources. But there are a few tricks. 

“When baking you can replace eggs with other things like mashed banana, apple sauce, carbonated water, gelatine. You can also mix oil, water and baking powder and still get the same [rising] effect as you will get in eggs. So there are alternatives, but they’re costly too,” says Mbhenyane.

Towards more plant-based options

The 2019 Lancet Commission on food, health and the planet came up with the planetary health diet, which is health for people and the environment. According to the commission, people are eating way too much meat. On the other hand, we are only consuming 50% of the recommended daily serving of five fruits and vegetables. 

“It’s recommended we reduce our animal food intake and increase fruit, vegetables, legumes and beans because those are healthy for preventing and managing noncommunicable diseases and cancers,” says  Mbhenyane. “On the other hand, rearing chickens and cattle emits a lot of carbon. So cutting down on the consumption of animal products will also assist with the climate by reducing carbon emissions.”  

Mbhenyane wants to promote a plant based diet. A key way to get more fruit and veg into your diet is to grow your own.  

“One of the things we promote is home food production especially for vegetables. People used to produce a little bit in the spaces they have; we need to get back to that. We need to do what we can to be self-reliant –  no matter if we’re in rural or urban areas.” – Health-e News

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