Plant-based sales in Gulf countries are small but promising

Several new product launches and a high-profile vegan prince are creating a buzz around plant-based eating in the Gulf region.

Last month, United Arab Emirates-based halal food producer Al Islami Foods launched its first plant-based product in response to growing demand for healthier vegan alternatives in the country.

Made from a blend of sunflower, pea and fava bean protein with beet juice for colour, the preservative-free burger patty was under development for eight months, said Al Islami’s CEO, Shahid N. Khan.

Al Islami is one of the largest frozen food companies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and adding a plant-based product to its portfolio was “the next logical step”, said Khan. The product will initially be available in the UAE before being rolled out in other GCC countries.

In a region where traditional food is heavily dominated by meat, some local players are opting for a hybrid approach to new product development. Healthy Farm, a brand launched by the consumer product division of UAE conglomerate Albatha Holding, makes a chicken, quinoa and kale burger. Targeted towards health-conscious eaters and meat-reducers rather than vegetarians or vegans, the burger contains 30% more protein and eight times less fat than a standard chicken burger, says Healthy Farm.

Sales of vegan and vegetarian-labelled products are starting from a small base. According to Euromonitor data, vegan and vegetarian claims on packaged food in the Middle East and Africa remain low compared to other countries. In 2019, just 0.7% of total stock keeping units in the region made a vegan claim and 1.3% made a vegetarian claim, compared to 6.9% and 6.4% in Western Europe, respectively.

However, the health and sustainability reasons that are driving plant-based food sales around the world also resonate with shoppers in the Middle East and the Gulf, and the COVID-19 pandemic, triggered by a strain of coronavirus believed to have zoonotic origins, should accelerate this further, according to Euromonitor analyst Maria Mascaraque.

The trend for plant-based eating has also been given a boost in the Gulf region thanks to Saudi Arabian Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud. Dubbed the Vegan Prince, bin Alwaleed regularly promotes an animal-free lifestyle and puts his money where his mouth is through his investment company, KBW Ventures, which focuses on sustainable firms.

KBW’s portfolio includes the plant-based brands Beyond Meat and Rebellyous Foods as well as cellular agriculture start-ups BlueNalu, Memphis Meats, TurtleTree Labs, Geltor, and Bond Pets Foods.

Foodservice and retailers cater to plant-based demand

Foodservice outlets are catering to their plant-based customers. Coffee chain Starbucks recently partnered with Beyond Meat to add two vegetarian sandwiches to its food range available in its 200-plus cafes across the UAE and Kuwait. The Beyond Meat Triple Cheese Wrap and Beyond Meatball Arabian Ciabatta are both meat-free but not vegan as they contain dairy cheese.

One retailer, UAE supermarket chain Spinneys, has also changed its product layout to cater to flexitarian shoppers. This month, Spinneys began stocking plant-based products together to make it easier for consumers to browse meat-free and dairy-free options. It also began sharing vegan recipes and advice on how to reduce food waste by using the whole vegetable from root to leaf.

The retailer’s plant-based range includes brands such as Linda McCartney, Meatless Farm, Quorn, Omnimeat, Violife and Beyond Meat. Its private label range has vegetarian versions of traditional dishes such as spicy koftas and stuffed peppers.

Tom Harvey, commercial manager at Spinneys Dubai, said: “With growing demand from conscious consumers for supermarkets to provide a broader variety of plant-based foods, Spinneys is committed to bringing quality, highly nutritious and good-value products from all over the world, as well as locally produced options such as our own SpinneysFOOD plant-based range of delicious, easy recipes for our customers to enjoy.”

Bright opportunities for health, natural and clean label

Investment bank Alpen Capital predicted in 2019 that demands for healthy, fresh, natural, organic and simple-to-understand ingredient lists would shape the sector in coming years.

“Changing demographics, increase in the number of working couples and growing influence of global culture is driving the demand of international cuisines, ready to eat meals and food delivery platforms,” its analysts wrote in a state of the industry report on the GCC region food industry.

“Further, due to rising incidence of lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension, people are becoming health-conscious and increasingly consuming nutritious and organic foods. The regional governments are also promoting healthy eating habits by introducing taxes on alcohol and sugary drinks.”

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