DESPITE increasing costs eating into local consumers' pockets, South Africa's appetite for fast food is growing steadily, a new study has found.

Locals have become fast-food junkies in spite of the sluggish economy and their changing lifestyles, according to a report by Analytix BI, the market research company.

The survey, titled "SA Country Report: Fast Food Consumer Trends (2007-2011)", says sport-loving South Africa is embracing affordable fast food in large portions for immediate consumption.

Analytix BI found that last year three out of four South African adults (16 years or older), or 25,3-million people, bought from a fast-food outlet in a four-week period - up from 20,6-million in 2007.

This increase is in line with global trends that showed a total reach of 208-billion transactions in 2009, with global revenue expected to reach $240bn by the end of 2014. The Americas account for about 48% of the value of the global fast-food market, Europe roughly 17% and Asia-Pacific 36%. It was not immediately clear whether Africa's contribution was included in any of these figures.

The growth in the popularity of fast food is attributed to "deliberately" large portions at low prices that appeal to consumers' desire for value for money, the report says.

Last year in South Africa, about 61% of those surveyed had bough fast food at least once a month, compared with 53% in 2007. Those who had never purchased fast food declined from 27% to 18% over the same period.

The report also notes an increase in healthier offerings by fast-food chains, which helps address the industry's reputation of being unhealthy.

Many fast-food companies have had to come up with innovative ways to capture market share and to draw new customers to their stores as rising costs eat into spend.

Famous Brands, one of South Africa's biggest fast-food companies, said last year had been challenging due to "pessimistic" consumer sentiment due to "high levels of unemployment and indebtedness, limited real wage increases and consumer (spending under pressure from) rising power and fuel costs and widespread food inflation".

Despite the challenging trading environment, the company grew its headline earnings per share in the year to the end of February by 15% to 278c.

Smaller competitor Taste Holdings said it would extend its reach in the lower living standard measures in the coming months. It grew its revenue 13% to R265,3m in the year ended February, while profit before tax rose 20% to R30,4m.

The Analytix BI report is based on an annual consumer survey titled the All Media and Products Survey conducted by the South African Advertising Research Foundation among a nationally representative sample of more than 25000 people.

valliea@bdfm.co.za