We look at the benefits of eating organic food and the best places to get it in the UAE.
More organic outlets is good news for UAE families
Rarely do parents feel under more pressure to do the best by their children than when it comes to feeding them a healthy diet. If the adage, "you are what you eat", is to be believed - and the consensus now is that it is - then their health depends largely on what you, as their parent, put inside their mouths.
Of course, we all know the obvious bits: plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, minimal processed food, steer clear of too much salt and sugar. But what about the hidden hazards - the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides that can often be found in certain types of meat and vegetables, and which have been linked to health problems including reduced IQ, reproductive and immune system problems, ADHD and cancer? Surely we should be as wary of these substances as we are of processed food? But since in the UAE, as in most countries, you won't find an ingredients label on a bottle of milk, or a packet of chicken breasts, we continue to feed our children without really knowing what their food contains.
As the mother of a one-year-old, my solution has been simply to avoid foods about whose origins I do not feel comfortable. My son has had chicken on only a handful of occasions. Likewise, I give him organic formula milk rather than regular cow's milk. I worry, though, that his diet is missing important components. Laura Holland, a nutritional and well-being consultant who works in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, thinks I am right to be cautious. "Those are things I would be very careful about giving my child," she says, "and would try at every opportunity to get an organic source, or at least one that was as trustworthy as possible."
Whereas fruit and vegetables can be washed and peeled, thereby minimising exposure to pesticides, it is the items from high in the food chain - meat - and their byproducts (milk and eggs) that, she says, we need to be particularly wary of. "Because these things come from an animal we just need to take extra care that we're eating what we think we're eating. With eggs, milk and meat we're eating that animal, so anything that animal has consumed we're also consuming."
Although research into the benefits of organic food compared with regular varieties is limited, there is plenty of evidence that repeated direct exposure to high levels of pesticides can damage health. The Agricultural Health Study, a continuing investigation started in 1993 in the US by scientists from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency on nearly 90,000 American farmers handling pesticides, has found that "people exposed to certain pesticides have an increased risk of developing certain cancers", but added that "further research is needed to confirm these findings".
The use of certain growth hormones in beef production has also been found to pose health risks, and has been implicated in causing the early onset of puberty in girls. Such hormones have been banned from use in beef cattle in the EU but are still permitted in the US and Canada. Meanwhile, rGBH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), a genetically engineered growth hormone, is often used on industrial farms to increase milk production in cows. The resulting milk contains higher levels of IGF-1 (insulin Growth Factor-1), which has been linked to certain cancers (although no such link has been found in people, scientists have expressed concern).
Dr Kamal Akkach, a specialist in paediatric and internal medicine at the Healthbay Clinic in Dubai, says there are certain situations in which an organic diet is advisable. "We all know that pesticides are hazardous," he argues, "therefore pregnant women in their first trimester should try to eat organic food to keep exposure to pesticides to a minimum. The first part of pregnancy is when the new baby is forming, when all the organs are forming. There are no medical trials confirming organic food as better at this stage but it would be a plus." At the very least, he adds, eating or feeding your child organic or well-sourced food will do no harm.
Luckily, it has just got a whole lot easier - and cheaper - to eat well in the UAE, thanks to Becky Balderstone, an expectant mother living in Dubai, who recently set up Ripe ME, a company that sells organic, locally grown produce at weekly markets in Dubai (every Saturday) and Abu Dhabi (every Friday). "I was fed up with having to buy bad vegetables from the supermarkets or going to organic shops and having to spend a fortune, knowing that it had been flown from Spain or Australia and had been frozen or kept at a low temperature for a while," she says.
Her vegetable boxes, whose produce has all been grown in the UAE and picked within 48 hours of being sold, start at Dh80. She is also launching a home delivery service in Dubai next month.
"The demand I have received here for both the market and home delivery has been fantastic," she says, adding that about 2,000 people have signed up for her home delivery service. Although Ripe currently only offers vegetables, she has an Australian supplier, Prime Gourmet, which sells meat at her Dubai market, and she is keen to find a similar partnership for Abu Dhabi.
Mazaraa in the capital also sells a big variety of locally grown organic vegetables, as well as organic chicken, milk and eggs, and at very reasonable prices (a chicken costs Dh25).
"I think it is getting easier to feed your children well in the UAE," says Holland. "You do need to do your homework and you won't be able to get everything from one supermarket - you have to go through the gamut of the different places - but it is easier."
The extra effort, though, is worth it. "While we don't want to become too paranoid," she says, "we do need to make sure that what we give our children is good quality, because at the end of the day their digestive systems are very young. They're very pure and clean and the more we can keep it that way the better."
UAE organic address book
Look out for the weekly markets, every Saturday at Dubai Garden Centre, and every Friday in Khalifa Park, Abu Dhabi. Buy reasonably priced vegetables, as well as eggs and baked goods. Home delivery service available in Dubai from January.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi (www.ripeme.com)
Find rabbits hopping around in the garden in front of this well-stocked store, which sells extremely well-priced organic meat, eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables - all grown locally.
Abu Dhabi (02 447 9933)
Organic Foods and Café
This organic emporium imports many of its items, hence the considerable expense. It has a delivery service, which delivers twice weekly to locations in the capital.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi (www.organicfoods andcafe.com)
Stocks a good selection of locally grown and imported organic vegetables.
Abu Dhabi (02 634 6624)
Sells excellent meat from Australia. There is a new store at Gold & Diamond Park. It also delivers in Dubai.
Stocks a growing range of organic vegetables, as well as a small selection of good quality meat - some of it organic.
(Branches across the UAE)
Look out for the supermarket chain's "hormone-free" beef. It also has an excellent selection of locally grown organic vegetables.
(Branches across the UAE)