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Sun 19 Jan 2020 12:45 PM

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Despite its popularity in the Middle East, veganism faces growing pains

While a growing number of consumers in the UAE and wider region are turning towards a plant-based lifestyle, experts say that false ideas and perceptions of unaffordability continue to pose challenges

Despite its popularity in the Middle East, veganism faces growing pains

Shops and restaurants that cater to vegan diets are growing in the region.  Image: ITP Media Group

Despite a significant uptick in awareness and adoption of vegan and plant-based food products, industry insiders say that misconceptions about prices and terminology remain widespread and continue to stifle the sector.

While shops and restaurants that cater to proponents of plant-based foods were once rare in the region, they are now common, with dozens of vegan options available in Dubai alone and increasing amounts of information – including in Arabic – now available online and through social media.

According to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, a well-known proponent of a vegan lifestyle and founder and CEO of KBW Ventures, knowledge of plant-based lifestyles in the Middle East was less than in other parts of the world because of a dearth of available information, particularly in Arabic.

“Only in the past few years has this information been made available in Arabic,” he told Arabian Business. “I had tons of people questioning what I was even talking about in the early days when up a social post about observing a plant-based lifestyle. People just hadn’t heard of such a thing.”

Prince Khaled’s views were echoed by Preeya Malik, the founder and co-owner of Dubai-based The Daily Prep Co – which sells a range of flavoured vegan smoothies – who said that the regional public has unprecedented access to information on the benefits of vegan and plant-based diets.

“With the use of social media and documentaries on the likes of Netflix, the general public has more and more information at their fingertips,” she said.

“Fitness and general wellbeing are the messages you see regularly in print, social media and the news. People are more aware that you only have one body and it needs to be fuelled in the right way, and that at the end of the day, you are what you eat.”

Misconceptions remain

Despite the widespread availability of information, a number of misconceptions and challenges continue to stifle the industry.

Nada Elbarshoumi, the creator of the region’s first vegan food and lifestyle blog – One Arab Vegan – said that in much of the region, there is still widespread confusion about what terms such as ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ actually mean.

“For example, the most commonly used word for vegan in Arabic is also the same word used to describe vegetarianism,” she explained. “Another oversight is what it means to be vegan from a lifestyle point of view, versus just diet….many understand veganism to be purely grounded in food choices, as opposed to an ethical way of life.”

Just as important, Elbarshoumi added, is the perception that a vegan lifestyle is too difficult to achieve for the average consumer.

“Often, veganism is seen as a Herculean feat, with the most popular response being ‘oh, I could never go vegan’,” she said. “It should be easy and hassle-free, not stress inducing.”

The price factor

In Prince Khaled’s view, the main impediment to wider adoption of plant-based products remains price.

“Plant-based products are more expensive,” he said. “There’s no way to sugar coat that. That said, healthy food in general is more expensive….a great number of people opt for junk food because it is more affordable and is often a faster solution.”

However, Prince Khaled said that the challenge posed by high prices is gradually being overcome.

“Each year, costs go down as the science and tech behind the production and logistics and so on improve,” he added. “These production cost reductions are passed onto consumers eventually.”

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