DUBAI // A healthy majority of restaurant customers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi would like to see nutritional information on menus.
Of 592 residents in the two cities, 65.5 per cent wanted to know details of the calories, fat content and protein in the meals they ordered, according to a survey carried out in July.
Maggie Moore, event director at Gulf ŕ la Carte, which commissioned the survey for the Table Talk industry newsletter, said: "This indicates people are more conscious about the health implications of the food they eat. It is something the industry needs to discuss."
Restaurant workers agree they have seen a swing among consumers in the UAE towards healthier options. "According to our experience in the market here in UAE, awareness is increasing," said Ahmed Zohier Al Hasan, a nutritionist at the Organic Foods and Cafe at Dubai Mall.
A study conducted last year as part of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Diabetes Congress proves that more awareness is needed: it found that nearly a third of the Emirati population is overweight, and a third of those found to be overweight were also clinically obese. In the US, a federal law is being implemented that requires all big restaurant chains to put calorie information on menus and drive-through signs. The regulation is already in effect in New York, California and Oregon.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, the fast food industry is growing by 25 per cent a year, based on last year's reports by the US government on franchising in the Gulf region. So said Talal Thabet, the chief executive of Park Central, a 24-hour organic deli, food store and cafe.
"Less than 4 per cent of the fast food brands in the UAE are responsible for the majority of business in terms of their revenue across 3,100 outlets," he said. "Officially, we would love to see calorie counts being practised by any restaurant franchise with more than five outlets in an emirate. Commercially, that would make practical sense.
"But small businesses do not have the profit margins to afford extra costs [for lab testing of food], and will undergo immense financial pressure to deliver such requirements."
Mr Thabet said his restaurant is trying to provide a fast food alternative.
"People are heath-conscious, but we live in a very fast world and so convenience is extremely important," he said. "What we are trying to do is show the world that you can be commercially viable, produce healthy food and have it accessible to the masses."
Ahmed Mohammed, a 26-year-old Emirati, said although he eats out about three times a week, he chooses healthier options now.
He said he has been shifting towards organic food over the past two years. "The main reason I choose to buy organic goods is the lack of pesticides and other chemicals in fruits and vegetables," he said.
Another UAE resident said having access to nutritional information might help her lose weight.
"When I'm dieting and counting up my carbs and calories, I'd like to know exactly how much I'm having," said Nur Amer, 21, a Palestinian who says she eats out at least once a week. "If I could see that, it would discourage me from eating something I'm already hesitant about - like a burger. I know that's not good business for the store, but I think customers deserve to know."
Making healthier food choices - like opting for organically-grown produce - is only part of the answer according to Jane Darakjian, who has a doctorate in nutrition and works as a dietician at Manchester Clinic in Jumeirah.
"When someone eats organic food, but does not count in any other factors - such as portion size - they are just eating food that is healthy; it doesn't mean they will lose any weight," she said.
"I absolutely agree with America's rule, and I think healthy items on a menu should take up a wider column than the unhealthy section." Mr Thabet said calorie counts were important on menus, but said consumers needed to consider what else was lurking in their food choices.
"More important is the level of colourants, additives, and chemical preservatives," he said. "This is what is degrading our livers, kidneys and other organs."