How our food choices impact our health.

Unhealthy food choices, obesity levels, and the risk of food-related non-communicable diseases are on the rise across the world, including South Africa. Many of us opt for convenient, processed foods that are high in sugar and fat and low in nutritional content, and then have to deal with the adverse health effects. At present, both the consumption and production of the food we’re eating is unsustainable – and it’s taking its toll on our bodies and the earth.

UJ’s Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) was established to promote, enhance and encourage research on food evolution to ensure healthier lifestyles and to create a sustainable future. Positioned within UJ’s School of Tourism and Hospitality, FERL focuses on helping people be more cognisant of nutrition, and aware of how their health changes as they move into urban environments, or as they shift from indigenous to Westernised diets.


“The laboratory has been virtual from the start,” explains Dr Hema Kesa, the Director of FERL. “Our intention is to use technology to conduct our research, thereby implementing novel approaches towards South African food science and nutrition research.”

Recently, FERL has been investigating how it can take this further by incorporating 4IR elements into some of its programmes, particularly through the use of extended reality (XR). Dr Herman Myburgh, who recently joined the FERL team, is also exploring the advantages of using virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR).

Using XR allows the researchers to discover new ways of thinking about our various food environments. “For example, using 360-degree cameras, different food environments can be recorded in four dimensions and later analysed, compared and shared,” Dr Myburgh explains. “What’s more, adjusting the height of the camera changes the viewer’s frame of reference, and allows a supermarket to be viewed from the perspective of a child, for instance.” This approach to data collection delivers useful and meaningful results.

"One programme involves exploring both mal- and overnutrition in different population demographics. We’re trying to understand how people eat in different contexts, and why they make the food choices they do."~ Dr Kesa, the Director of FERL


Some sources cite that the average person makes roughly 35,000 decisions per day. Most of these are made in a split second, and by understanding more of this decision-making process, we can start to alter human behaviour and nudge people towards making more sustainable choices. Using VR, the researchers at FERL are aiming to create a standardised research environment, capable of recording minute interactions between research participants and the virtual environment. “This creates an exciting new avenue for research that focuses on how people make their nutritional choices during the purchasing process,” Dr Kesa says.

Although several of FERL’s projects were meant to start in mid-2020, they had to be put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But that hasn’t slowed Dr Kesa and Dr Myburgh’s enthusiasm. When the time is right, they’re hoping to further integrate XR, VR and AR into their work.

What is behind the word ‘Mycotoxins’?

Dr Alex Kamgain

Postdoctoral Research Fellow: Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL)

Have you ever heard about moulds in foods? Have you ever seen them on foods? You will certainly say “YES, OF COURSE!” and you are right. It is in fact those visible microorganisms generally associated with food spoilage and postharvest food losses. But do you know about mycotoxins? Most of the people will take few seconds to think twice and finally say ‘’NO!’’

That word comes from the Greek, “Mycos” which means mushroom and Latin, “toxicum” which means poison. Mycotoxins refer to toxic compounds that are produced by certain moulds during their growth on food and feed commodities. These substances can be harmful both for humans and animals. Indeed, when absorbed even in small amounts, they can lead to an acute or chronic disease termed mycotoxicoses. They have been reported as carcinogens, mutagens (genotoxic), teratogens, or immuno-toxins based on some effects observed on the liver, kidney, lungs, and the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

Aflatoxins, Fumonisins, Ochratoxin A, Zearalenone and Trichothecenes represent the major ones. They account for millions of US dollars lost annually worldwide due to their negative impact on human health, animal productivity and agricultural products trade. Human contamination with mycotoxins can occur directly through the consumption of foods containing mycotoxins or indirectly through consumption of animals in which mycotoxins have been bio-accumulated. Strict standards on the maximum tolerable concentration of different mycotoxins in foods have been fixed at both national and international levels for a variety of foods including cereals, maize derived products, dried fruits, wine, spices, oats, coffee, cocoa, soybeans, meat, eggs, etc.

The sanitary control system of each country therefore has a key role to play by ensuring in laboratories that foods and drinks sold to populations are safe for consumption. However, at the household level one should avoid the consumption of foods that show moulds growth, or the use of such foods for cooking especially as many mycotoxins are reported as thermostable.


World Hypertension Day – Know your numbers!

Dr Bianca van der Westhuizen



According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa, high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a very serious risks factor that contributes to the development of heart diseases and strokes. Globally hypertension causes around 7.5 million deaths per year and many people are not even aware that they have hypertension. In South Africa more than 1 in 3 adults live with high blood pressure and it is responsible for 1 in every 2 strokes and 2 in every 5 heart attacks. 17 May is World Hypertension Day with the theme “Know your numbers”.

What is blood pressure? It is the pressure that the blood applies on the arterial wall. The systolic blood pressure (upper value) refers to the force of the blood on the arterial wall when the heart beats whereas the diastolic pressure (lower value) refers to the force when the heart rests. Blood pressure is needed for blood to reach the rest of the body and circulate back.

As mentioned, hypertension is one of the most important risk factors for a healthy heart. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage your heart as well as your blood vessels which supplies al the important organs with blood.

Can we tell if we have high blood pressure? Even though there are some symptoms of high blood pressure, most individuals are unaware of it. It is often called the “silent killer” for this reason. It is crucial to have your blood pressure measured at least once a year.  Some of the common symptoms of hypertension are sweating, headaches, anxiety, dizziness, trouble sleeping and nose bleeds.

Blood pressure is measured using a non-invasive procedure where a pressure cuff is placed on your upper arm.  A normal blood pressure is usually around 120/80mm Hg. Blood pressure should be measured more than once, on separate occasions before a diagnosis for hypertension can be made.

The International Society of Hypertension strongly advocates that prevention is key and individuals can reduce their risk by following these 10 guidelines:

  1. Maintain a healthy body weight
  2. Exercise for an average of 30 minutes a day
  3. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – daily
  4. Cut down on salt consumption
  5. Reduce fat and sugar intake
  6. Don’t smoke tobacco
  7. Reduce caffeine
  8. Don’t drink too much alcohol – stick to daily recommendations
  9. Add beetroot and beetroot juice to your diet
  10.  Avoid stress where possible and allow time for relaxation

Know your numbers this May-measuring-month by checking your blood pressure for free! Check out the South African hypertension Society for a free screening centre near you at Remember to tag the following hashtags #checkyourpressure and #MayMeasurementMonth when doing your screening!


Taking the guess work out of label reading

Dr Bianca van der Westhuizen (Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL), STH

Understanding how to read the nutritional information panel can be a powerful tool in making sure you make healthier food choices. This task can be daunting in some case if you don’t know what to look out for. Let’s look at some easy tips to follow and what to look out for.

The most important aspects of reading a label is to look at the information panel and then to look at the ingredient list.

1. Read the Nutrition Information table

A simple table can be used to determine what to look out for when choosing a healthier food option. We mainly look at the total fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium and fibre when making our decision. Foods in the ‘low’ group can be eaten more often, but foods in the ‘high’ group should rarely be eaten or only on special occasions. Additionally to this, include products with a fibre content of more than 3g/100g.


2. Read the list of ingredents

Ingredients are always listed in order of weight, where the ingredients used in the greatest amounts are listed first, followed by those used in smaller amounts. Often the first three ingredients listed on the label make up the largest portion of the food item. Look out for sugar, salt and bad fats which may often be listed under different names. Below are some sneaky words to look out for:

  • Sugar

Brown sugar, concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, dextrose, treacle, fructose, glucose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt, malt extract, maltose, isomaltose, maltodextrin, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, cane sugar.

  • Bad fats

Animal fat, beef fat, butter, chocolate, carob, coconut oil, cream, dripping, ghee, hydrogenated oils, lard, margarine, milk solids, monoglycerides, palm oil, seeds, nuts, coconut, tallow, shortening, trans fats, vegetable fat.

  • Salt

Baking soda, salt, MSG (monosodium glutamate), any word containing the term sodium, nitrates, nitrites.

It’s always important to be cautious when choosing foods and to use the labels as a helpful source.


Moringa: a food treasure for humanity 

In many countries around the world as well as in South Africa, there is an increasing number of people suffering from Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) mainly diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory disease. Unhealthy diet is one the leading risk factors. The Food Evolution Research Laboratory would like to share with you how important indigenous foods consumption may be helpful to prevent those diseases.                                                                               


One of this Indigenous vegetables that we usually find in different forms in our local markets, supermarkets or elsewhere and for which we generally have a low interest is Moringa. Do you know that this plant is now considered as a “superfood?” this due to its nutritional value, medicinal properties and health benefits. The specie Moringa olifeira, also known as horseradish tree, ben tree, or drumstick tree, is commonly consumed as vegetable in Africa and South Asia. All the parts of the plant (leaves, pods, roots, bark, flowers, seeds, and fruits) are edible and are used to make medicines.

Moringa is a source of proteins showing the presence of all the essential amino-acids in their structure. It is also a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Indeed, it contains significant amounts of vitamin A, C, and E; calcium; potassium; iron and zinc. Leaves are the most nutritional rich part of the plant. They have 9 times the protein of yoghurt, 15 times potassium of banana, 25 times the iron of spinach, 10 times Vitamin A of carrots and 0.5 times Vitamin C of oranges.

Besides, Moringa contains phytochemical compounds that confer its medicinal/health value. This plant is used to treat diseases such as diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, heart problems and high blood pressure, anaemia, arthritis and rheumatism. Its efficiency against constipation; diarrhea; stomach pain; stomach and intestinal ulcers; intestinal spasms; headache; kidney stones; fluid retention; thyroid disorders; and bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic infections has also been reported. Furthermore, it has been described as an anti-inflammatory, an immune system booster, a libido booster, as preventing pregnancy and as increasing breast milk production.

As this plant is an easily cultivable one, it therefore appears as a sustainable solution for malnutrition and for NCDs fighting. One can benefit from most of its above-mentioned properties by directly and moderately consuming its fresh leaves as vegetables or their available derived products, especially leaf powder for food supplementation, capsules (powder in a capsule) or tea. Moringa oil, made from seeds, is rather generally used for beauty purposes (skin and hair care).

Dr Alex Kamgain

Postdoctoral Research Fellow: Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL)



Salt Awareness Week – Time to take action!

Annually the world and South Africa remind our population of the dangers of too much salt in our diets. This year is no exception, and from the 4th to the 10th of March we will celebrate Salt Awareness week. The Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) based within the School of Tourism and Hospitality (STH) conduct research that improves decision making towards healthier food choices leading to healthier lifestyles and for this reason would like to remind you of just how much salt you are allowed to consume per day.

It is well known that food as we know it has evolved in terms of processing and fitting in with our busy lives. Although convenient, this evolution of food sometimes has some consequences like a higher salt content. Salt is present in almost all the processed foods we eat and is indicated on the lable as sodium. We are only allowed to consume 2000mg of sodium per day which is the same as one teaspoon of salt.

So what should you look for on the label?  Look on the ingredient list for these words: Salt or any ingredient that contains the word “sodium”, MSG, baking soda or baking powder.  If any of these words are in the first three ingredients on the food label of a food, it is likely to be high in salt.  You can further explore the salt content of the food by checking the Nutritional Information Table.  Look at the value for sodium in the “per 100 g” column and not the “per serving” column.  You can use these sodium values to compare different products and choose the one with the lowest amount of sodium. Here is a very helpful table (taken from the Salt Watch website) to use when deciding whether a product is high in salt or not:





Cutting back on salt has received a lot of attention in South Africa in the past 6 years, based on data showing that we are consuming too much salt.  This led to our Health Minister signing legislation to reduce the salt content in certain food products (i.e. breakfast cereals, breads, ready-made-meals, cheese etc.).  June 2016 was the first target date with a follow up in June 2019, where our food will have to comply with a lower salt content. Soon you and your family will be eating less salt, without even noticing it!

Look out for more information on social media this coming week about salt. FERL encourages research around the evolution of food: the change in eating patterns with food away from homes, the movement toward healthy eating and combatting non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Dr Bianca van der Westhuizen

Post doctoral Research Fellow: Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL)



                                 FERL: SCHOOL FEEDING SYMPOSIUM                         


FERL – Food Evolution Research Laboratory, hosted its first symposium on School Feeding at the School of Tourism and Hospitality, University of Johannesburg, on Friday 12th of October 2018. FERL was honoured to have hosted key stakeholders such as Ms. Carina Muller and Ms Mavis Ranwedzi from the Department of Basic Education, Professor Mosa Selepe from the University of Limpopo and Professor Amit Sharma from Penn State University, USA.The symposium focused on key studies that have been conducted over the past 3 years and some of which are currently undergoing further research and development.

 Topics of interest were built around: 

  • The ‘National School Nutrition Programme in Johannesburg schools by Dr Kesa(Director of FERL),
  • Awareness and Food safety practices of Food Handlers in schools implementing the National School Nutrition programme in Gauteng North district’ by Ms Randwezi (DBE),
  • Food safety and hygiene practices in Gauteng schools by Ms Thandeka Nyawo (Postgraduate Student: STH)  
  • The pros and cons of National School Nutrition Programme: A case study of Northern KwaZulu Natal by Professor Mosa Selepe
  • ‘Food offerings in schools: when is more too much?’ by Professor Amit Sharma (Director of the Food Decisions Research Laboratory), Penn State University. 

 These topics were built around similar objectives, which were: 

  • To provide daily, culturally acceptable, nutritious meals to enhance learning capacity.
  • To promote healthy lifestyles through nutritional education and support development of food gardens in schools.
  • To promote sustainable initiatives.

This further developed interests around the health and safety aspects of the school feeding programme and how these were implemented. The studies evidently  uncovered the underlying factors and challenges that schools across Johannesburg/Gauteng are faced with on a daily basis. Some of the challenges include shortage of  water supply for food gardens, inadequate access to gardening activities, limited financial resources and support, lack of capacity and training.

It is believed, through these and many more studies schools can serve as the starting point into a bigger community development initiative. FERL has begun its journey to ensuring learners at schools are receiving better quality and highly nutritional foods that are increasing the overall education and development rates of learners. FERL will further encourage it’s research to be developed around enhancing the national school feeding programme.

Ms Mavis Ranwedzi from the Department of Basic Education (DoBE). 

Professor Mosa Selepe from the University of Limpopo.

Dr Hema Kesa, Prof. Mosa Selepe and Ms. Mavis Randwedzi.


FERL- Food Evolution Research Laboratory Launch 2018

The launch of the Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) housed within UJ's School of Tourism and Hospitality (STH) took place on Tuesday, 28 August at UJ's Bunting Road campus.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) is ensuring it stays at the cutting edge of technology and aims to further its research to align to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

In this regard, FERL have created a Virtual lab that encompasses traditional research principles but also promotes the use of research through newly innovative and critical thinking mechanisms, which can be transferred through a newly developed website and blog, a range of social media platforms and through virtual reality experiences that engages audiences. FERL has collaborated with Samsung Electronics for the provision of modern technology in order to operate as a virtual lab.

Dr Hema Kesa (Director: FERL) said: '' FERL aims to be recognised as a multidisciplinary and collaborative laboratory within and out of the University of Johannesburg specifically aligning itself to the School of Tourism and Hospitality (STH).  The lab would provide innovative growth within a Pan-African spectrum of the STH, especially within the Hospitality department by promoting growth in research.''

The Food Evolution Research Laboratory established its presence through increased demand and aspirations towards enhancing the lifestyles of people across different ages and generation groups that align themselves towards nutrition, health and wellness through research studies.

Prof Amit Sharma from Penn State University, USA and Advisory Board member of FERL added: ''We are particularly interested in exploring the food choices students are making and the impact it has on their academic performance and educational experiences. We are truly excited to be part of the launch of FERL and are really looking forward to continuing this collaboration with Dr Kesa and the University of Johannesburg.''

FERL will encourage research around the evolution of food: the change in eating patterns with food away from homes, the movement toward healthy eating-combatting non-communicable diseases (NCDs), movement from indigenous diets to Westernised diets with the emphasis on good health and nutrition.


 From left to right: Dr Diane Abrahams (Director: School of        Tourism and Hospitality Management), Dr Hema Kesa (Director: FERL), Prof Amit Sharma.

     Dr Hema Kesa (Director: FERL)