People suffering from food allergies say supermarkets and restaurants are failing to meet their needs - but hope is in sight.
Gap in market for specialised diets
DUBAI // Linda Foster's two-year-old daughter has coeliac disease, an inflammatory disease of the gut, which requires young Aili to eat only gluten-free food. But finding that food can feel like moving mountains.
Gluten is a protein found in rye, wheat, barley, kamut and spelt. It is present in most types of cereals, bread, pasta, pizza, cake and cookies.
"She is very sensitive, so for me, trusting a supermarket is a humungous issue," said Ms Foster, a Swedish resident in Dubai. Last May, she set up Gluten-Free UAE for residents in need of information concerning the disease.
The most critical issue, according to Ms Foster and other parents of children with gluten, lactose or sugar intolerance, is that supermarkets in the UAE are not as aware as they could be of the needs of customers with special diets. Food for diabetics is sometimes shelved separately in stores, however gluten-free and lactose-free items often are not.
"Shopping is not as straightforward here; if the product is next to a gluten-containing one, it could make my daughter ill," said Ms Foster, whose whole family turned gluten-free to avoid exposing her daughter.
"I go to five supermarkets a week for my family, and it can take me up to two hours a shop because I have to read all the ingredients all the time," she said.
Many supermarkets say the demand for speciality food in the UAE is unclear, which leads to a lack of adequate supply to consumers.
"We are not sure how much the demand is here for people with food allergies," said Anil Vaswani, the area operations manager of Almaya Supermarket in Dubai Marina. "So we are not sure how much we should actually get."
The supermarket provides customers with 60 products in a specific area so they are not mixed with other food items. And because shelf space is tight in many of the country's groceries, "we don't have too much space to experiment with these types of products", Mr Vaswani said.
For the past year, suppliers of speciality diet foods have been receiving products from Australia. They include sugar-free and organic, gluten-free food. "We make sure not to mix them with other items that contain gluten," Mr Vaswani said. The store also supplies soya and goat's milk.
Rashid Aljari, whose 20-month-old son Obeid is lactose intolerant, knows how hard it can be to find a reliable supply of goat's milk.
"Ninety per cent of the milk on the market in the UAE is cow's," Mr Aljari said. "So I have a huge issue because I need to find a substitute."
The Emirati lawyer buys goat's milk from The Organic Foods & Café in Dubai Mall. But even that has proved tricky. "Goat's milk is really hard to find and it's not always available on the shelves, so when there's a shortage, I struggle a lot," he said.
If Mr Aljari has no other choice, he will give Obeid cow milk. "But it causes him trouble at night and he starts screaming from stomach aches," he said. Mr Aljari said he has not yet tried camel's milk.
Worldwide, approximately 3 to 5 per cent of children and 0.5 per cent of adults are affected by food allergies. In children, the most common problem foods are eggs, cow's milk, soya, tree nuts, peanuts and fish. In adults, the principle allergens are tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish.
"People with food allergies are quite common in the UAE, much more in kids than in adults," said Dr Michael Loubser, a specialist who sees 10 new allergy cases a week at his Infinity Clinic in Dubai. "Sesame seed is the leading food allergy in the GCC."
When it comes to restaurants, Dr Loubser said, the seriousness of food allergies has been largely underestimated. As for supermarkets, "there is a lack of speciality food stores that cater to individuals who have very specific dietary requirements".
"The Organic Foods & Café in Dubai is a notable exception," he said. "The West has strong legislation in place, but some food produced locally or in South-east Asia is not so well legislated."
But the region is slowly working towards bridging that gap in the market and Katinka Socrat, a Dubai-based German, is contributing to that change.
Although she was born gluten intolerant, her coeliac disease was not diagnosed until 19 years later, when her spine collapsed due to a loss of bone density. She spent two years in hospital.
After moving to Dubai from Germany 10 years ago, she noticed the need for a speciality store. "Every time I wanted to eat bread, I would ship it from the US," she said. "But that became costly."
Most supermarkets in the UAE only have specific items and they are spread out. So Ms Socrat created the UAE's first online gluten-free website, www.glutenfree-supermarket.ae, which will deliver 100 products from Germany, Italy, the US and Australia to customers' doorsteps across the Middle East. It will also provide recipes and health information.
"It's an epidemic and so many people are getting it," she said. "The market in Dubai is not developed yet and I want to stop the suffering of people here."