Dubai: As obesity and diabetes levels rise in the UAE, consumers want to take a bigger bite off of healthy food, which has prompted retailers to expand their range of food that is organic, low on carbohydrates and free of gluten.
Walking down major supermarkets in the UAE, consumers can find aisles displaying organic, low-carb food that are organic, low on carbohydrates and free of gluten.
Also, speciality shops that sell low-carb food have proliferated over the last two to four years, says Dr. Girish Juneja, head of surgery and director of Dubai’s Weight Loss Metabolic Centre, International Modern Hospital.
“I expect consumption of healthier products to double over the next five years,” said Dinesh Pagarani, group general manager of supermarket chain Choithrams.
Demand is mostly driven by Western consumers, according to Natalia Gorzawski, research analyst at research firm Euromonitor International.
However, Nils Elaccad, CEO of Organic Foods and Café, says while there is growth in demand for organic, low-carb and gluten-free food, it is not significant.
“There is growth but not significant in total numbers [total amount sold]. Healthy food is a niche and has still not yet become anything significant in terms of mainstream,” he said.
According to him, demand for healthy food is driven by consumers that are both “food intolerant” and those that want to be healthier. “But food intolerance is the demand which leads to supply,” he said.
Gorzawski does not think there is a big shift towards healthy staple foods. “But for categories that are more new, people choose the healthy variation, such as cereal, soy milk, diet bread and protein bread,” she said.
Organic food is grown without synthetic fertilisers and pesticides; meat, eggs and dairy products do not contain antibiotics and growth hormones, and no genetically modified organisms are part of the product.
Low-carb food, on the other hand, contains limited carbohydrates, such as grains, starchy vegetables and fruits.
Gluten-free food does not contain the protein gluten, which is found in grains, such as barley, rye and wheat, and is mainly consumed by people with celiac disease, a digestive and autoimmune disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine.
Consumers are paying a premium to avoid gluten and carbs, and consume organic.
Retailers expect sales of their organic, low-carb and gluten-free range to grow in the coming years.
Kamal Vachani, group director of Al Maya Group, a supermarket chain in the UAE, expects sales of organic, low-carb and gluten-free food to grow by 7 per cent this year compared to 2013. In the coming years, he expects sales of those products to grow by 5-10 per cent.
Similarly, Abu Dhabi-based LuLu Hypermarket’s healthy food, which the company mainly imports from Europe, is expected to contribute between 5 and 10 per cent of the company’s food revenue in the next three years, said V. Nanda Kumar, the company’s head of corporate communications.
Choithrams’ range of low-sugar, diabetic and gluten-free products has grown extensively to meet demand, Pagarani said. It recently introduced a new variety of organic lentils, spices and nuts.
“Many people are choosing to make much needed changes in their eating habits and opting for healthier meal options for the sake of their well-being,” Pagarani said.
Another supermarket chain, Spinneys, is focusing on the range as part of its “ongoing commitment to the health and well-being of our customers,” said Colette Shannon, the company’s communications manager.
Some consumers said they buy organic, gluten-free and low-carb food to be healthier, even when they come with a bigger price tag compared to conventional food.
“I prefer and look for organic products to avoid the long term side effects and health hazards of hormone injected or genetically treated products. I do buy organic products, although much expensive, whenever I find them,” said Yousef Hamad, a Jordanian national who lives in Sharjah.
Hamna Ahmed, a Dubai resident, says she buys organic and low-carb food from Choithrams, Spinneys or Waitrose, and shops for those twice a month.
“When I am cutting down on carbs, I don’t completely remove them from my diet but I opt for brown carbs which tend to be less processed,” Ahmed said.
Hamad says he buys organic food from Spinneys and speciality stores.
“Recently, more utilities started selling organic products, which indicate the increasing public awareness of their importance,” he said.
The range of organic food is expected to grow in the coming years.
Apart from supermarkets, there are farmers’ markets being held in Dubai that sell organic food.
For instance, Ripe, a provider of organic produce, works with a handful of farms in the UAE, which have been chosen for their organic-farming techniques. It then sells the produce in the form of vegetable boxes. The company has also has a Farm Shop, through which it sells organic produce.
According to Euromonitor International, sales of organic packaged food in the UAE reached $16.3 million in 2013. Retail sales are forecast to grow by 31 per cent to top $21.1 million in 2018.
Within the organic packaged food market, organic baby food makes up the largest share of sales, at $7 million as of 2013, followed by organic sauces, dressings and condiments ($5.7 million) and organic canned and preserved food, excluding ready meals, soup and pasta ($2.5 million).
While some shoppers are buying organic food, others are debating whether to go the organic route. One reason why shoppers debate is that organic food typically costs 20 to 100 per cent more than conventional food, which is a significant amount of dirhams for those on a budget. Some of the reasons why organic food is more expensive include the higher cost of fertiliser that is used and better living conditions that are required for the rearing of organic livestock.
Of 19 options in a survey published by consulting firm Alix Partners in January, “locally sourced” enticed more consumers to spend, followed by “certified organic”, “organic”, “preservative free” and “certified non-GMO [genetically modified organism]”. Certification seems to impact consumers’ decision to spend; consumers are willing to spend more on certified organic and GMO-free products than those that are not certified.
Gluten-free food is not as popular as organic options, and the regional market for gluten-free is smaller.
While gluten-free is a food trend, even among those that don’t have celiac disease, Alix Partners’ survey showed that few consumers are willing to pay more for gluten-free products.
Yann Jolivet, partner at Skinny Genie, a bakery in Dubai that produces gluten-free products, says ingredients for gluten-free food are more expensive than those that contain gluten.
“The agricultural process is expensive,” he said.
He pointed out that products that don’t contain gluten are free from pesticides, which is one reason behind their high cost.
Echoing Jolivet’s views, Andreas Borgmann, co-founder at food and beverage chain Kcal, which offers gluten-free options, says its gluten-free products costs 5-10 per cent higher than its food that contains gluten due to the costlier ingredients.
He said that gluten-free ingredients are hard to find in the UAE since there are few stores that sell them. As a result, the company needs to import its ingredients sometimes.
There are more cafés and supermarkets that sell gluten-free than restaurants in the UAE. Domino’s Pizza, Wagamama, California Pizza Kitchen are some of the restaurants that cater to customers that seek gluten-free food.
Euromonitor International forecast the size of the Middle East and Africa market for gluten-free food to have stood at $14.4 million in 2013.