Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The UAE's Fat Problem - The Super Sized Soda Ban

Supersize Me !! -- The bypass burger strikes a...
(Photo credit: marsmet491)
The UAE's Federal National Council has announced steps to ban super-sized sodas in the country. The decision comes as part of a two-day session in which representatives discussed and brainstormed ideas in the educational and healthcare sectors, a discussion that took place alongside a much-publicised public consultation over social media.

The move is a fantastic idea and to be lauded - others have tried but failed to implement the measure. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has spearheaded a long legal battle to implement a super-sized soda ban, a fight that continues even as I write this.

It's a step in the right direction, but when you look at the journey ahead, even so big a step seems like a very small thing indeed. The UAE has a problem - and at its core is one small word. It's actually what I do as a day job and so I get a tad frustrated by it all.

It's awareness. Nothing more, nothing less.

The UAE is a young country, sometimes still painfully young. Its people have grown up in one of the most dynamic, fast-changing and evolving environments in the world. It's one of the most diverse collections of humans on earth - I'm shocked we aren't surrounded by thousands of anthropologists studying the place - with probably the world's wackiest demographics and societal challenges so great even trying to think about them deeply provokes brain skitter. One of the many, many products of that youth is an almost complete lack of food education and a culture of enjoying the plenty we have today - because within living memory there wasn't plenty, but scarcity here.

It's not helped by food producers and importers. Crisps fried in palm oil are the norm here, usually sprinkled liberally with MSG and 'Sunset yellow' - and other egregious dyes. The market leading brand of potato chip is fried in palm oil, a saturated fat. You can't throw a stone without hitting a fast food joint - each worse than the last. These have evolved very nicely to suit local culture and provide fun evening environments for the whole family - which of course gorges itself on processed meats fried in cheap fats (more palm oil!) and then slapped in highly processed buns to be served with processed french fries, flavouring coated onion rings or *shudder* curly marinated potato chips. Let alone the super-sweet sodas, shakes, doughnuts and ice cream sundaes on offer.

And, as anyone who read yesterday's post (or any of my posts passim on the topic of what's in our food) will know, being aware of what you're eating isn't always easy because food producers can be obfuscatory and even mendacious in the way they present foods to us.

The Khaleeji palate is fond of creamy cheeses, fried foods, dry biscuits and sweets. Cake shops sell highly processed confections slathered in artificial colourings and pumped with polyfilla-like artificial creams. And most of the locally sold brands of those dry biscuits are baked using, wait for it, palm oil.

Alongside this, we have a love of cookery and entertainment. The consumption of cooking oil by the average Emirati family is something to be seen to be believed - you can see the trolleys being lugged around Carrefours and the Co-Op. Demijohns of oil, pot noodles and worse things than that lurk in there.

I'm not being holier-than-thou here - I'm not saying anyone else is better. The UK in the 1970s and 80s was a paradise of processed foods, sweeteners and fats. It's not even particularly healthy there in these at least marginally more enlightened days. And the States. Oh, wow, the States. In any case, I'd probably know more about eating habits here than there these days.

But I am being realistic. There's a problem here - and at its heart is the fact the average consumer is totally unaware of what they are eating and there's nobody interested in making them aware because they are making a great deal of money by feeding the appetites of the nation. There are relatively few healthy alternatives - and when people don't know they're paying an insidious price for those burger meals, fried treats and creamy sauces zinging with 'E's, they're hardly going to opt for those 'no fun' healthy choices in any case.

So yes, great step FNC. But someone needs to get serious about letting consumers make more informed choices for themselves and, crucially, for their children.

I, for one, would be only too happy to help...

(PS Yes, I know there are expats who eat unhealthily too.)

(PPS The UAE can take some solace in the fact it isn't the world's fattest nation. Strangely enough that gong doesn't belong to America, but our next door neighbours, Qatar.)

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1 comment:

Michael said...

Funny how nobody comments on the most important aspect of daily life: what you put in your body and how it affects your health.

The BBC did a nice 3-part documentary called "The men who made us fat." One of the points they made is that when these fizzy drinks first went on sale they came in tiny bottle sizes. I forget the actual size now but would be surprised if they were bigger than 150ml.

The problem is that the profit is positively and exponentially correlated to the size of the serving, as the drink and packaging cost little more than a few cent to produce.

I shudder when I see those food courts full of people killing themselves and their kids with garbage food.

But I disagree that just awareness solves the problem. It is often a financial decision to eat junk. Do I feed the whole family for less than AED 100 or do I buy fresh produce for at least 5 times as much and cook from scratch? Maybe over-population is the cause.

One of the major reasons for getting my kids out of the UAE was the food.

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