(photo credit: Courtesy)
Healthier eating is gradually making its way on to the table and into the stomachs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - and the faster the better.
In spite of accessible health care and vast improvements in infant mortality or other parameters, Emiratis are obese and suffering related ailments like diabetes and heart conditions. But help of a sort is on the way with growing numbers of offerings in healthily and organic foods by the country’s restaurants and food retailers.
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One step in that direction came over with the opening of a weekly organic-food market in the Dubai Garden Center that features handpicked food from farms near Al-Ain and Abu Dhabi. Boxes of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce were snapped up quickly, according to Beck Balderstone, whose company, Ripe, sponsored this market and another is planned to launch in November in Abu Dhabi.
The 200 boxes are just a tiny morsel in the UAE’s $3.5 billion food market where large retail chains and multinational fast food brands dominate. But Ripe and others are making inroads - certainly among the expatriates who constitute the lion’s share of the population - but among locals as well.
In the Jumeriah Lake Towers, Kcal just celebrated the first anniversary of its healthy fast food restaurant, where diners can choose from a wide ranging menu of items none of which exceeds 300 calories. Andrew Borgmann and his partners plan to open a second outlet in two months and look to developing Kcal into a chain.
“Twenty years of trying to eat healthy takes its toll, especially here in Dubai,” Borgmann told The Media Line. “You have a very few places you can get sort of healthy food … but nowhere where you can eat exactly what you want. It would be nice to go to a place, look at a menu and not have to say ‘No, I can’t eat this or that.’”
In a stark white décor, with a hint of green trimming, customers can dine on honey mustard grilled chicken (274 calories) or a Kcal burger on a whole wheat bun (298 calories), wash it down with a Sunset Buzz ( 174 calories) and finish it off with an apple turnover (194 calories).
Borgmann said Kcal is now offering a meal plan, where customers pre-order three meals and two snacks daily: all prepared after consultations with a nutritionist.
Because it involves creating an individualized menu, the meal plan will only be available to a limited number of customers, but a lot of Emiratis could use one. Some 70% of UAE residents over the age 18 are classed as overweight or obese, according to a screening done in 2008 by the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD). Among school children, 30% are obese.
Emiratis typically don’t believe they have a problem. According to a poll of 750 Emiratis released earlier this year by Phillips Heathcare, a unit of the Dutch electronics giant Phillips, 75% said their weight was normal or that they were leaner than they actually are.
But they do. A quarter of all Emiratis may be suffering from diabetes – the vast majority of them from Type 2 diabetes, which is the kind caused by poor diet and lack of exercise – by the year 2015, one of the highest rates in the world. The onset of heart disease, caused by factors such as diabetes and obesity, on average occurs 15 years earlier in the UAE than in the West, Obaid Al-Jassim, the head of cardiothoracic surgery at the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), told The National
daily last week.
Many of the people leading the way to better eating in the UAE are personally committed to organic and healthy food themselves, but they are confident they can win over others who live on hamburgers.
Two weeks ago, a newly formed wholesale distributor called Organic said it plans to put 300 food and non-food organic products on UAE store shelves, starting with organic energy drink, Pure BIO Energy, produced by Austria-based Pure BIO Products. One of its stated aims is to bring down the price of organic products to entice consumers.
That is the way to go, according to a YouGov Siraj survey taken in 2008. Some 80% of the respondents said they were aware of organic food but only a tiny 1% said they only put organic food into their shopping carts. Among those who didn’t use but might, 61% cited the cost and 45% the lack of availability.
"The market for organic products is still niche and small compared to
Europe or the US, but there is a steady rate of growth in the uptake of
these products making the Middle East market a promising growth ground
in the years to come,” Juma Abdulla Al Hosany, chairman, of Organics’
parent company, the Al Hosany Group, told a news conference.
Whether you’re a consumer or a restaurateur, getting and eating
healthier food is not as difficult as people make it out to be, even in
the UAE, said Borgmann. Organic food is expensive but at Kcal the stress
is on eliminating fats and carbohydrates.
“Our biggest problem is the bread. I’m extremely picky and I only take
the best. They add a lot of oil to bread to keep it moist, as well as
preservatives,” he said. “But the UAE is such a big place for food to
source good ingredients isn’t that hard.”