Mindful of the impact diets can have on the body and the environment, a seismic shift is occurring across eating habits globally. Based on health, lifestyle and ethical concerns, consumers are redefining what is ‘good’ and what is ‘harmful’. Rising numbers of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, are strengthening the demand for ‘healthier’ products. Although health awareness is not a new trend per se, it has had an immense impact on conscious consumption habits and consumers are now wising up on healthy eating ensuring that what they eat is natural, locally sourced, has low or no additives, and also has reduced fat, sodium and sugar.

One outcome of such mindful eating is that organic food has become mainstream. Plant-based foods are growing in prominence, especially with the rise of veganism and the rapidly growing fraternity of ethical consumers for whom animal welfare, fair prices and sustainable sourcing play a crucial role in purchasing decisions.

According to the 2019 Gulfood Global Industry Outlook Report, an in-depth market research study released to coincide with the Gulfood exhibition held last month at the Dubai World Trade Centre, demographic shifts such as urbanisation, migration and the rise of the middle class are reshaping consumer lifestyles and purchasing decisions.

Locally produced food is deemed more sustainable because it is fresh, seasonal and reduces environmental costs
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Disposable higher income among the rapidly expanding middle class is disrupting consumption trends, driving the demand for high-quality and more expensive packaged food that includes organic and locally produced products, says the report produced in partnership with Euromonitor International and GRS Research & Strategy Middle East.

The report also says that three of the top five trends in the industry are linked to ‘ethics’ as consumers are beginning to evaluate a brand’s ethical credentials, including sourcing and sustainability policies. These include the ‘concepts of being eco-friendly, awareness of harmful effects of plastic on the environment, concerned of fair trade, and practicing honest advertising’.

Global food trends and brands are shaping the food and beverage market in the UAE too, where shoppers are putting quality before price. Accordingly, supermarkets across the nation are stocking up on a broader variety of food products to cater to the consumer preferences of natural ingredients, local produce, ethical labels, free-from products, recycled, eco-friendly and organic products.

[This three-Michelin-starred chef talks sauces, sustainable cooking and what will make Dubai the next global food capital]

According to Kirti Meghnani, head of retail-procurement at Choithrams, ‘Although taste and price continue to be the main influential factors that define a consumer’s choice of preference in food, there is a growing category of consumers willing to pay more for products without artificial ingredients and reduced pesticide use or those produced in a sustainable manner.’

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Today, UAE consumers are aware of the negativity surrounding foods that are genetically modified, and imbued with artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, he adds. “Their awareness levels are high, and they make a clear distinction between local and organic products. While they understand that local produce is more sustainable and has greater value addition, some consumers swear by organic foods and even prefer to opt for air-freighted products.’

Although organic foods tend to have higher nutritional value than conventional food due to the absence of harmful pesticides and fertilisers, imported organic food travels thousands of food miles thereby negating its positive environmental effects. ‘Locally produced food may therefore seem more sustainable because it is fresh, seasonal and reduces environmental costs,’ says Meghnani.

‘However, a proper analysis needs to be done to ascertain the sustainability credentials of locally and regionally produced goods. Just because it is local does not mean that it is produced sustainably. [Sometimes] it may be wiser to get it shipped from elsewhere than consuming food that comes at a cost to your health and the planet.’

Consumers are clearly giving greater thought to the impact of their purchasing decisions, and actively embracing sustainability in every aspect of their lives. For instance, the knowledge that additives and ingredients have a negative impact on health, has led to the rise of ‘natural’, ‘free-from’ and ‘no artificial’ claim products. According to the 2019 Gulfood report, last year Kellogs, a leading manufacturer of breakfast cereals, decided to remove artificial flavours and colours from its entire product portfolio, while Unilever has decided to reformulate existing brands by using natural ingredients and removing additives.

One UAE company that has responded to the demand for healthier and more nutritive products with its ‘Better for You’ commitment is Hunter Foods. A 33-year-old private manufacturing, distribution and packaging company, headquartered in Dubai, it is today changing its manufacturing processes and reducing ingredients such as sodium, artificial flavours and preservatives to accommodate the rising consumer sentiment for healthy snacks.

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‘The initiative to offer better choices for the consumer began with the shift from replacing palm oil — a cheaper, resource-efficient ingredient blamed for deforestation that is threatening the survival of the orangutans in South East Asia — with sustainable palm oil, that is sourced from certified producers,’ says Ananya Narayan, managing director of Hunter Foods.

‘Now we have moved from sustainable palm oil to sunflower oil. Although this is twice as expensive as sustainable palm oil, our decision stems from purely a health perspective as the saturated fat in sunflower oil is less than half of that of palm oil.’

In the past five years, Hunter Foods has etched itself firmly in the gourmet sector expanding from its original potato chip offerings to now include a range of snacks made with high-protein grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. ‘Currently, our products are all non-GMO, vegetarian and have no transfats. By the end of this year, we are committed to making all of our products MSG-free, and totally free from artificial flavours and preservatives. As of now, it is 95 per cent no artificial flavours and 94 per cent no preservatives.’

However, he adds, the company’s products are only 19 per cent organic, ‘because it is not possible to certify every ingredient of every product. For instance, a salt and vinegar flavour in potato chips contains 10 different ingredients. To get organic certification for every ingredient of every flavour across our product range would become a very costly exercise.’

The big shift in the consumer’s food choice, he adds, has come with the realisation that the mass-produced, supersize foods loaded with sugar, salt and cheap ingredients are unhealthy and non-nutritious. ‘Consumers need healthier snack options and we have catered to this demand with a range of gourmet products including whole and sliced real fruit and vegetable chips that retain nutrients and flavours intact.’ The company’s Gourmet Mixed Tropical Fruit Chips was awarded the inaugural Best New Product Development at Gulfood this year.

Since eating healthier has become the norm, many food companies are regularly updating consumers when they reduce calories or eliminate certain ‘unhealthy’ ingredients in their product offerings. According to Meghnani, ‘It is the smaller producers who are the ones to respond and adapt faster to the consumer’s changing needs. Though a bit late, most of the MNCs too have been reacting positively by either substituting healthier or natural ingredients, or offering healthier options in the form of sugar and salt reduction, organic products, natural ingredients, GMO-free, etc.’

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Although the sustainable angle ranks high on the consumers’ mind, the choice of organic and natural or local in food choices is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ensuring sustainable practices in the food industry, says Meghnani. ‘Consumers today are well aware of the environmental impact of their shopping choices, and we have responded early on with changes in our working practices and the way we operate to match this shift in thinking,’ he says. ‘For instance, in our retail operations and supply chain, we focus primarily on three environmental clusters, namely waste, water and energy. All physical equipment at our supermarkets, like freezers, chillers, lighting, fittings, are highly energy efficient even though they are costlier to install. Secondly, to reduce the perils of plastic packaging, we are working with our suppliers to reduce non-sustainable materials within the chain in packaged goods and fresh produce. We also work with industry experts to see how the supply chain can be modified to get to better shelf lives without affecting the nature of the product.’

In February this year, Dubai Chamber of Commerce Sustainability Network recognised Choithrams, awarding its sustainability initiatives, notably for the eco-friendly construction of its new outlet at Emaar’s The Greens.

There are other companies too that are going the sustainable way. Abu Dhabi-based Agthia Group, whose product portfolio includes Al Ain Water, Al Ain Fresh and Capri Sun juices, and the region’s first vitamin D fortified flour, Grand Mills Vitamin D, is one. According to Tariq Ahmed Al Wahedi, Agthia Group CEO, ‘Agthia’s early adoption of a careful and considered approach, integrating best environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices in our business, not only safeguards the environment where the group operates but also all others who may be affected, directly or indirectly, by our manufacturing activities in all locations.’

Agthia already uses total recyclable secondary packaging across all categories of which 99 per cent are biodegradable, he explains. ‘Our goal is to achieve 100 per cent eco-friendly packaging and zero landfill waste by 2020, in addition to a commitment to use 10 per cent of PET plastic from recycled sources and 5 per cent from plant-based sources by 2021.’

Bottled water goes green

It was evident that sustainability considerations have entered the bottled water industry too if the Gulfood 2019 was any indication.

82 per cent of every bottle is from renewable resources that can be regrown naturally
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With a 100 per cent recyclable, plant-derived water bottle, US-based Just Water is not only a sustainably packaged product, but is also ethically sourced, says Just Goods’ CEO, Ira Laufer. ‘Unlike most plastic bottles that are made entirely from petroleum products, 82 per cent of every Just Water bottle is from renewable resources that can be regrown naturally. The packaging paper comes from certified forests, while responsibly sourced sugarcane make up the shoulder and cap of the bottle. The result is that our bottles have a 74 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, compared to a standard plastic bottle.’

He adds that his is an ethical water sourcing company committed to making a direct and positive impact in the communities it operates in.

While Lebanese brand, Talaya, marked its debut at Gulfood 2019 with its new 100 per cent recyclable eco-friendly range of EcoglassTM bottles, a patented German innovation that is created by using a very thin layer of glass to coat the inside of a PET bottle, French company, Ocean Fresh Water, presented a revolutionary bottled deep-sea water brand, Ôdeep. According to Jacques Le Moigne, CEO of Ôdeep, ‘We extract our water from a depth of 300m in the ocean aboard eco-aware bottling vessels. This deep ocean water is processed, bottled and palletised all onboard the bottling vessel and is a great alternative to land-based water resources.’

Championing the cause of ‘Made in the UAE’

For freshness, reduced environmental impact and supporting local economies, nothing works better than consuming locally produced foods. Calling himself a ‘big advocate of sourcing locally’, Saradhi Dakara, executive chef at The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill, Dubai, was one of the first chefs in the region to introduce Dibba Bay oysters from Fujairah on their menu.

An early morning visit to the market to select their own produce is every chef's dream, says chef Saradhi
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‘The dream of any chef is to visit markets early in the morning and select their own produce,’ he says. ‘By sourcing locally, you get to develop relationships with farmers and producers, and reconnect guests with where their food comes from.’

Although the percentage of local produce used in his restaurant is only 10 per cent, ‘we are constantly working on improving this number,’ says Chef Saradhi.

With growing consumer awareness of the sustainability of the food they are eating, ‘there is a trend towards eating locally grown food as is evident from the increasing numbers of farmers’ markets that are popping up,’ he says.

‘We source our produce primarily from Ripe Market in Dubai, and Emirates Bio Farm and Junior in Al Ain,’ he adds. ‘I’ve recently started buying Candy tomatoes from Pure Harvest and lettuce and watercress from Badia farms.’

Sustainable date production

With an array of exciting, new date-based products, The Date Room, launched in November 2018, is an Emirati luxury dates brand championing the cause of local dates production. It was when founder Ahmed Mohammed Bin Salem noticed that the majority of dates sold in stores across the UAE were imported that he set about developing this homegrown brand, says Tony Al Saiegh, executive director, The Date Room.

‘The UAE is blessed with quality dates that rival those from any other region,’ he says, ‘and our venture supports local farms in Al Ain where about 40 different kinds of dates are grown. The most popular varieties are: Bumaan, Fard, Khadrawi, Kholas, Lulu and Razaiz.’

The Date Room is also committed to bettering the environment, he adds, ‘and we are making farming sustainable through reducing waste and using natural fertilisers.’