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The Middle East Really Likes Vegan Snack Bars

While British diners were busy gorging on Ottolenghi and tabbouleh, the Middle East developed a taste for dairy and gluten-free UK imports.

Phoebe Hurst

Phoebe Hurst

Photo via Flickr user prideandvejudice

Middle Eastern food is so ingrained in British cuisine that it's easy to forget it's there. Wetherspoons can do your sausage and mash with a side of tabbouleh, and roasted-aubergine-anything has become a coverall veggie option for small-town chefs across the country. Even your mum has stopped saying "bless you" when you mention shakshuka.

But while the UK was eating hummus straight from the pot and pretending that Yotam Ottolenghi recipes are a totally doable Wednesday night dinner option (how hard can it be to marinate sea bass in chermoula and stuff it with preserved pomegranate?), the Middle East developed a taste for British health food. The kind of shrivelled cereal bars and funny-coloured bread you subject yourself to the morning after having a few too many goes at the meze plate.

Traditional Middle Eastern cuisine naturally lends itself to dairy and gluten-free diets. Dates, falafel, and Israeli salad have all been subject to the #cleaneating hashtag.

Back in 2013, the Middle East's gluten-free market was valued at $13.6 million. It's estimated to grow to $18.1 million in 2018, partly due to the increase in Western health food imports. Last year, Genius Foods signed a deal with the leading Middle Eastern supermarket chain, Spinneys, to stock their coeliac-friendly range of bread, fruit loaves, and muffins across the United Arab Emirates. Nestle currently occupies more than half of the gluten-free market share in the Middle East and Africa, thanks to its popular wheatless range of baby foods and chocolate.

Organic food has also seen a boom, especially in the United Arab Emirates, where retail sales of organic packaged food are predicted to reach $21.1 million in the next three years. While Western expats have driven the demand for health food in the Middle East, retailers have also reported increased local interest in free-from products.

"We're confident that the appetite for more health-related goods in the Middle East is only just taking off," says Zara Shirwan from Wellbeing International, a London company exporting health food to retailers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, UAE, and Qatar. "Nom and our vegan snack bars are selling really well across the UAE, Kuwait, and increasingly Lebanon. We're also seeing a growing interest in oat and rice milk, baby food, and drinks, plus a huge demand for organic sugar and coconut flour from Saudi Arabia.​"

Shirwan founded Wellbeing International 18 months ago with logistics expert Gemma Price. The company delivers a range of organic and free-from products, including spirulina, aeroponically grown wheatgrass, and coconut oil.

"I'd been noticing the growing trend for health and speciality food and thought it was certain to take hold across the Middle East," says Shirwan. "Our markets have a young population who go abroad to Europe and the US to study and get a taste for more healthy products and brands."

Whether food fad or extension of traditional cuisine, the Middle East's recent appetite for healthy eating sits at odds with its obesity figures.

But the Middle East isn't just getting its free-from kicks via imported cereal bars; local cafes and supermarkets have also cottoned onto the health food trend. Lebanese-born Areej and Ed Jomaa opened Dubai's first gluten-free bakery, Sweet Connection in 2012 and the A New Earth health food shop in Beirut sells locally grown vegetables and paleo-friendly baked goods.

"There has been a noticeable shift in dining habits in the Middle East towards more free-from and organic food options," says Bethany Kehdy, a Lebanese-American food blogger. "That said, I don't think it's a trend that's turning diners away from traditional foods completely, but rather providing them with ingredient alternatives which can be used to continue making the local classics."

Indeed, traditional Middle Eastern cuisine naturally lends itself to dairy and gluten-free diets. Dates, falafel, and Israeli salad have all been subject to the #cleaneating hashtag.

"The most popular Israeli dishes are all vegan, even meat-based restaurants have vegetarian options," says Claudia Prieto Piastro, a research student at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King's College London. "Locally grown vegetables have always been a trend and part of national pride in Israel."

Whether food fad or extension of traditional cuisine, the Middle East's recent appetite for healthy eating sits at odds with its obesity figures. Over half the adult population in Israel is classified as obese, and a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found the percentage of obese adults in the Middle East rose from 53 percent to 62 percent between 1980 and 2013. Childhood obesity is on the rise in Lebanon, and British medical journal The Lancet ranks Egypt as the seventh most overweight country in the world.

Middle Eastern obesity is, of course, linked to that other Western dining trend: fast food. Marwa Essa, a Dubai retailer who stocks a range of sugar-free products from Wellbeing International, sees the interest in health food as a reaction to the obesity crisis. "Obesity is one of the biggest causes of diabetes in the UAE, and the country is trying hard to get people moving and be aware of the side effects of being overweight," says Essa, whose products suit both diabetic people and those looking to avoid sugar.

Perhaps it's time to go back to the hummus.