This lack of knowledge means UAE residents are making poor choices around food, not just in terms of buying it, but also storing and preparing it, says Judy Sebastian, a food safety consultant at Apex Food Consultants. She also writes about food at FoodSheBlogged, and last month teamed up with fellow blogger Louise Steen to campaign for better food awareness in the UAE, under the Safe and Healthy Food UAE (SAHFUAE) banner.
‘Yawning gap’ in behaviour
“At a consumer level, I notice there is a yawning gap between what they should be doing and what they are doing. In a way, I feel like they’ve forgotten how to connect with food, like people used to,” said Sebastian.
She suggested a desire for faster and easier solutions is part of the problem: “What’s faster may not always be healthy – and in the case of food safety, not very safe either. People choose to buy food in bulk, and store it at home – take it out, defrost it, refreeze it, stuff like that.”
Sebastian and Steen conceived the SAHFUAE campaign, which saw its first event in June, as a way to help educate consumers about food from a scientific background. Sebastian said both of them had seen a lot of poor information about food, much of it not necessarily based in reality.
“We felt there was a necessity to educate people on the food they choose to eat, because the decisions being made, not just locally, but on an international scale, are more about what the majority believe is true. So you now have gluten-free as a lifestyle, when originally it was a necessity, for people who were allergic or intolerant to gluten – but somehow along the way that understanding has dissipated,” she said.
‘Should it be yellow?’
She believes food education is falling victim to the UAE’s hectic lifestyles, which often results in a lack of knowledge among children: “We had this one campaign with kids, when we looked at how they interacted with food at home, some of them couldn’t tell the difference between common vegetables, or know what to look for when choosing a vegetable. Some of the kids would be confused – should it be green, should it be yellow?”
Sebastian also noted that parents are not questioning the food they are buying: “When I was talking to a few parents, and they said ‘we always go with grass-fed beef, with organic eggs’ – I asked one of the mothers if these products were free-range or not. She didn’t know what I meant by free-range. Then I asked, for the grass-fed cattle, what do you think farms do in winter-time. And they were confused, because some farms do have the reserves of hay – but not many have access to that.
“It’s questions like these that people have forgotten to ask, and the only reason is, they’ve forgotten how to connect with food. They’re so used to seeing things off the aisle, they’ve forgotten how to ask where things came from,” she added.
Sebastian praised the UAE’s growing organic farming movement, not just for providing better-quality food, but also for giving consumers an opportunity to learn about how food is produced. She said the opportunity to visit organic farms would help people reconnect with food.
As with Steen, Sebastian is reluctant to put the responsibility for education on food producers, but suggests they could do more by reaching out to consumers: “If there are brands that are really concerned about consumer safety, about consumers’ nutritional intake, they can probably connect with consumers on a more personal level, and the best way to do this is to use social media. They could run campaigns or competitions on social media, to get people interested – but not make it seem like bait. Consumers can tell.”