Addressing the issue of food security in South Africa, Dr Brandon van Rooyen from the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development and Manager of the Food Innovation Laboratory at the University of the Free State (UFS), teamed up with Prof Wilna Oldewage-Theron, Professor of Nutrition from Texas State University (USA) and Research Fellow in the UFS Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development, to develop nutritious products tailored to the needs of the low-income population.

Dr Van Rooyen’s experience as a food product developer, and Prof Oldewage-Theron’s extensive research experience in community nutrition and her efforts to educate lower-income communities about healthy diets, make them suitable for their work in the Food Innovation Laboratory.

Dr Van Rooyen says he would particularly like to see children from the low-income bracket in schools not only having access to food, but that they have access to healthy alternatives.

A big focus of the Food Innovation Lab is soya products. Since the lab opened its doors at the beginning of the year (2023), it has developed a range of plant-based products resembling meat, including soya sausages and mince. “Should the soya sausages, for instance, be made available in schools and served as hotdogs, the bread bun will cost more than the sausage,” indicated Dr Van Rooyen, who is of the opinion that their products tick all the boxes of affordability, nutrition, and being attractive to the consumer.

They have also developed healthy snack options, such as soya nuts available in original, barbeque, fruit chutney, and hot and spicy flavours.

The lab is currently distributing these products to schools and conducting surveys to gather feedback from students. This feedback will be valuable in assessing how the products are being received and determining if any adjustments are necessary.

Support from industry

Another important aspect of their work is to strengthen ties with organisations such as the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST). Recently, the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development hosted Ingrid Woodrow, the Chief Executive Officer of SAAFoST.

Prof JW Swanepoel, Associate Professor in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development, says “In the Food Innovation Lab we are focusing on action research; research with a focus on ground level with value for communities.”

“It is important to be associated with the industry. They act as patrons of certain commodity groups and have direct contact with producers and retailers, and are thus connected to the entire value chain,” he adds.

During Woodrow’s visit, Prof Oldewage-Theron and Dr Van Rooyen took the opportunity to introduce her to the soya innovation projects and to discuss potential avenues for advancing community engagement projects aimed at promoting food and nutritional security in Southern Africa.

She was also introduced to a range of other ground-breaking food-science-related research and developments in the faculty. These include the vegetable tunnels and the work that Carien Denner-Vorster and her colleagues are doing to fight food insecurity on campus, and the Sensory Laboratory where Dr Carina Bothma exposed her to a sensory experience and the work they are doing to assist with food product development – from muesli with mopalitos to magwenya.

 Moreover, Woodrow had the opportunity to visit Prof Arno Hugo’s Meat Science and Innovation Laboratory. Prof Maryna de Wit also shared research and development efforts related to cactus pear, while Prof Celia Hugo discussed her work on food safety.

“We wanted to provide a showcase of our various food-science-related research and facilities at the UFS and what services we can offer to the industry,” says Dr Van Rooyen.

In response, Woodrow said, “The work you are doing here is close to my heart. We need more projects such as these in South Africa. There is so much despair in our country, yet so much is happening to improve things.”

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