The cheapest protein in South Africa – and it’s not chicken

Dry beans are the cheapest protein source in South Africa, followed by eggs, chicken and canned pilchards. However, these prices do not reflect consumer demand.

This was revealed by the Competition Commission in its Essential Food Pricing Monitoring Report, released on 6 May 2024.

The report showed that while chicken is South Africa’s favoured protein source, canned pilchards have gained significant popularity in recent years.

This comes as consumers adjust their food expenditure in response to the rising cost of living and the effects of load-shedding on their ability to store perishable foods.

However, the commission’s report found that this rise in popularity is not necessarily solely due to the price of Pilchards.

In fact, relative to other proteins, canned pilchards are not the most affordable source of protein, with each gram of protein costing R1.12 in December 2023.

Dry beans are the most affordable protein source at R0.32 per gram, followed by eggs at R0.48 per gram and Individual Quick Freezing (IQF) chicken at R0.91 per gram.

Beef is the most expensive source of protein at R2.81 per protein gram.

The report found that protein sources experienced differing levels of inflation over 2023. This is not surprising given the considerable differences in the costs of producing these products and, to some extent, their demand.

The graph below shows the relative inflation per gram of protein in various sources. 

Source: Competition Commission using Stats SA data

Apart from eggs, which have been affected by the avian flu outbreak, inflation in protein sources was modest over 2023.

However, eggs remain the second most affordable because they are a low-cost protein source, and a significant percentage increase translates into a low rand increase. 

The same applies to dried beans inflation of 10%, which was also higher than food inflation over the period. 

Interestingly, beef – the most expensive protein source – had the lowest price inflation at 2% followed by canned pilchards and IQF chicken at 6%.

The commission explained that the increase in the popularity of canned pilchards is not necessarily because it is the cheapest protein source.

Rather, the rise in demand appears to be based on a combination of factors, not only its price or relative ranking as a protein source. 

The commission gave the following potential reasons for the rising demand.

  • They are easy to store – the cans are easy to stack and do not need refrigeration
  • They are sold in smaller quantities, which gives consumers some flexibility regarding their purchasing patterns
  • Pilchards are available in various flavours to accommodate consumer tastes without additional expenditure on flavour-enhancing ingredients
  • Canned pilchards are zero-rated for value-added tax, which may help them remain more affordable. 

“These features suggest that pilchards will continue to be important in the food baskets of low-income consumers and may act as an important buffer when there are shocks in the supply of the other more popular protein sources,” the commission said.


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