Diabetes changing the way the Middle East eats

By Ankush Chibber

- Last updated on GMT

Diabetes is growing the market for sugar-free and low calorie foods in the Middle East
Diabetes is growing the market for sugar-free and low calorie foods in the Middle East

Related tags: Saudi arabia, United arab emirates, Diabetes

Food and beverage companies must take note of the growing awareness of diabetes in the Middle East if they want to truly tap the market to its full potential.

The Middle East is one of the worst affected regions in the world when it comes to the prevalence of diabetes, with Saudi Arabia and UAE two of the most affected.

A note from consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton suggested that by 2020, 32% of the adult UAE population (age 20-79) may have diabetes or pre-diabetes, while the adult UAE population (ages 18+) has already reached a diabetes or pre-diabetes rate of 44%.

In Saudi Arabia, the prevalence of diabetes is reported at an alarming level of almost 25% of the adult population. Over half of the people above 30 years of age in Saudi Arabia are suffering from diabetes, according to Saudi Diabetes Society (SDS). If unchecked, this figure is expected to double by 2030.

But while most of this data has been known for a while, what is changing fast is people’s attitude towards diabetes. Growing awareness, as well as increased costs for the government, are driving a fast moving trend towards healthier food options.

Costs push the government to push the people

The SDS suggests that Saudi Arabia spends about US$8bn every year on the treatment of diabetes. In the UAE, on the other hand, direct treatment of diabetes constitutes about 40% of its overall healthcare spending. By 2020, if unchecked, diabetes may cost the country $8.52bn, according to Booz Allen Hamilton.

These are not light numbers and are forcing administrations to push through more and more programmes to increase diabetes awareness, Kartik Dwivedi, partner at Mumbai-based Dassler Business Intelligence, told FoodNavigator.

“Asian cultures’ own cuisines have never been of the healthy sort but what has affected the Middle East more is the easy availability of cheap, western fast food,”​ he said. “What you are seeing now is a push back against this sort of food.”

Earlier this month, Dr Salem Al Darmaki, undersecretary at the UAE’s Ministry of Health, said diabetes and obesity represented a “new health challenge.”

“Today, we are facing a new health challenge – the high burden of non-communicable diseases, in general, and diabetes, in particular, as reflected in its high morbidity and mortality​,” said Al Darmaki.

Driving the push are groups such as the SDS and the Emirati Cardiac Society, which are partnering with governments to launch awareness programmes, especially targeted towards children. Funding to such programmes is increasing as well.

Weight and waist

“I think food makers need to and are probably quickly adapting quickly to this. It would be naive of us to think they are not doing so,”​ Dwivedi said.

Earlier this month, United Biscuits announced that it would acquire a biscuit manufacturing business in Saudi Arabia to further establish the McVitie’s brand of healthier biscuits in the Middle East. The acquisition of Rana Confectionery Products will see UB have a majority stake in Rana and manage its production facility.

“The market for sugar-free and low calorie biscuits, cereals, bars, candy and beverages will only grow from here. We can see a lot of fortified products having a market. I can also see the demand for western fad foods like green tea and guarana getting some play,”​ he said. 

According to him, the nutraceuticals market in the Middle East is a potentially booming one given the spread of obesity, diabetes and other related diseases. “Products that are geared towards weight and the diabetic management will get the most traction. I think Asian nutraceuticals manufacturing hubs like India can look at this market positively. ”

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