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.


Global health facts and figures.


One in every nine people in the world is hungry or undernourished.
The growth of almost a quarter of all children under the age of five is stunted.
Undernourished people, who have weaker immune systems, are likely to be more severely affected by Covid-19.
The vast majority of people around the world cannot access or afford a healthy diet.
One in every three
people is overweight or obese.
Rates of obesity are
higher in the world’srichest countries.
Someone dies every
from diabetes or its complications.