We live in a part of the world rife with fast-food restaurants, where the next slice of pizza, serving of fries or creamy milkshake is never more than a cab ride away. From a snatched lunch eaten at the desk to a late-night home delivery, it's all too easy to embrace the unhealthy option. In addition, some convenience foods that appear to be healthy - pre-packed salads, sandwiches, ready meals - have sky-high levels of sodium and saturated fat.
A hectic pace of life is often blamed for our poor food choices. Fast food offers instant gratification, after all, and many will argue that it's only eaten because we simply don't have time to cook. Well the assertion that time constraints and lack of quick, healthy alternatives are to blame for questionable diet choices is about to be challenged, especially for those who live or work around Dubai International Financial Centre. Freshii is a health-food chain that originated in America in 2005, has grown exponentially ever since and has launched its first site in Dubai, with plans for five more openings in the UAE over the next three years.
"Fresh food, custom built" is the mantra at Freshii and the premise goes that you can walk into one of its outlets and have a salad/wrap/soup or rice bowl tailor-made to your dietary requirements in the time it would take to order a burger and fries. This is nutritious food, served up fast enough to accommodate even the busiest of schedules. Each "base" dish (a rice bowl, for example) can be customised with a whole host of different ingredients, the credentials of which are listed under accessible terminology.
When choosing your salad dressing for example, you can opt for one that is listed as "light" (very low in fat and high in fibre, minerals and vitamins), "balanced" (containing slow-release carbohydrates, essential fats and good oils) or "classic" (the not-so-virtuous choice). If you log on to the Freshii website or download the iPhone app then it displays the nutritional value of each ingredient and adds them up as you make additions to your dish. Of course, in the Los Angeles store you can do this on iPads that are built into the walls.
Matthew Corrin, the founder and chief executive of Freshii, explains that the company is not about "uninspiring rabbit food". By no means is everything on the menu low-fat; adding a regular serving of Caesar dressing to your wrap or salad bowl ups the calories by 252 and the fat content by 28g. What Freshii does is offer the customer detailed information about the choices available, thus allowing them to make informed decisions. He believes that restaurants need to take some sort of social responsibility for the food they serve and that they should provide healthy alternatives on their menus. "It is disappointing when the food industry serves up items that contain more than 1,000 calories. If they do this, then they should at least have the decency to alert their customers to it."
So whether it's a gluten-free, low-carb or high-protein meal that you're after, this restaurant will, they say, endeavour to provide it. "Freshii has nothing to hide; we aim to be transparent, to arm our customers with all the relevant nutritional information and then let them choose exactly what they want to eat," says Corrin. He adds that with Freshii being a global brand, certain staple ingredients will be imported, but wherever possible products will be sourced locally. He also has plans to give the menu here a unique slant. "Over the next few weeks we'll be increasing the variety of sauces available and giving things a bit of Middle Eastern twist - using yoghurt, lemon, various oils and flavourings".
It remains to be seen whether Dubai residents will be shunning their shawarma and getting experimental with salad ingredients. But the arrival of Freshii should make us question whether more restaurants should display information about the food they serve. In Bahrain earlier this year, the health ministry called for fast-food outlets to display nutritional value charts prominently, while in the US, a healthcare bill has been passed demanding that chain restaurants (with more than 20 locations) do the same. In Britain, meanwhile, health ministers are currently in talks with the food industry about implementing a system whereby leading restaurants voluntarily display calorie content on menus. The consensus seems to be that restaurants have a responsibility to offer this information and that customers will respond by making healthier choices. While it's rare for restaurants to display nutritional information about their products on their premises, many international chains including McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Subway, do carry the facts and figures on their websites (though they are not region-specific).
When The Noodle House chain relaunched its menu recently, it opted to highlight healthy options with "apple" symbols and its website details the calories-per-serving for each dish. Those watching their weight might like to know that choosing crispy noodles with XO sauce instead of mee goreng will save them 467 calories, and let's just say that the words "diet" and "wasabi prawns" don't go well together - a large portion of those provides more than 800 calories.
According to Luke James, the operations manager at The Noodle House, the restaurant is committed to providing the customer with as much information as possible about its products, hence the symbols. "This allows the customer to make a choice according to their lifestyle," he says. While we wait to see if more restaurants follow this lead, there are several iPhone apps available to help you keep track of your calorie consumption. The Fast Food Calorie Counter lists nutritional information for more than 9,000 items, from 70 popular fast-food chains, while the www.livestrong.com Calorie Tracker app allows you to record the number of calories you've eaten that day, and how many you've burnt off.
But as we know, this is easier said than done; according to its website, a McDonald's quarter pounder with cheese has 510 calories, which will take the average male (running at 5mph) 60 minutes to work off. Surely that's reason enough to pause before hastily devouring a lunchtime burger?