The prevalence of obesity has been steadily on the rise over the past couple of decades, and the Arab World is not an exception to this trend. According to estimates provided by the World Health Organization, approximately thirty percent of the Arab population is either overweight or obese.
The question is, how is the food and beverage industry a part of the worldwide spread of this disease, and how is it affecting the Arab world in particular? And how are the trend-setters in the F&B industry using this momentum to advocate for healthier eating?
We have reached out to Hamad AlWazzan, an investor in the food and beverage industry, for his thoughts on the matter.
The Food and Beverage Sector: A Paradoxical View
The catering and food industry has always been lauded for its ability to satisfy any and all gastronomic whims. Of course, we have everything from delicious gourmet burgers to the best wines money can buy. There’s a good reason why some of the biggest names in business have shown such an interest in this market niche: it’s lucrative beyond imagination.
Hamad Al Wazzan argues, “Fast Food Restaurants Are Not the Only Ones to Blame.”
Let’s take a step back and examine the big picture as it pertains to fast food chains. These thoughts can be summed up in a pair of words: Food Systems. A person’s nutritional status and health are strongly influenced by the processes that go into producing, processing, marketing, distributing, purchasing, and consuming food, as well as the consumer’s practices, resources, and institutions involved in these activities. A simplified definition of a “food system” is the totality of activities involved in producing, processing, distributing, and consuming food.
The private sector, ranging from multinational corporations to smallholder farmers, is the driving force behind food systems, with the food and beverage (F&B) industry playing an especially important and influential role. There may be a variety of factors at play here, including the proliferation of fast-food restaurants, the rise in the prevalence of added sugar in consumer goods, and the increasingly common pattern of doing little physical activity. Global fast food chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, etc., as well as countless local “junk food” joints, have proliferated rapidly over the past few decades across the Arab World.
Younger Generations: More Susceptible to Bad Habit Indoctrination
Unfortunately, obesity is more common in younger generations across all Arab countries. According to UNESCO’s Human Development Report, obesity among youth (15-19 years old) is over 20% in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Morocco, while it is also over 20% in Syria and Lebanon. “It saddens me to see my people, across the Arab countries dive into this bad habit and trend, leading ahead generations of unhealthy eaters”, commented Mr. Hamad AlWazzan. Going in depth, there are several possible explanations for the trend.
According to recent research, obesogenic environments, such as television, are a major influence on children’s exposure to unhealthy diets and energy overconsumption. Children who sit in front of the TV for longer amounts of time are more likely to be overweight because they are exposed to advertisements for calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Many studies have also shown that commercials for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods have an effect on children’s food choices, consumption habits, and requests for purchase. The food industry employs persuasive marketing strategies, such as colorful packaging, toys, and emotional appeals, to connect with children and encourage brand loyalty.
Product placement is a form of advertising in which a message, logo, or product (food or beverage) is displayed in a visual or graphic medium, such as television shows, movies, music videos, or video games, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). When the main character in a film or TV show is depicted consuming a particular brand of soft drink, like Coca-Cola or Sprite, in a scene, that brand is being advertised.
The entertainment industry is booming, with more and more people accessing shows and movies via their computers, smartphones, tablets, televisions, video-streaming services, and movie theaters.
Mr. Hamad AlWazzan comments on this phenomenon saying: “These marketing strategies encourage children to develop and maintain lifelong habits by manipulating their emotional responses, creating brand loyalty at a young age, and encouraging poor nutritional habits, aided and supported by the wide availability of bad food choices and accessibility.”
New Food Choices Emerging in the Market
Those at the forefront of the business were taken aback by the alarming rise in obesity rates, which prompted them to lobby for healthier food options and retail outlets. The market responded to the obesity epidemic by not only offering consumers healthier options but also by manipulating their emotions to favor specific brands.
Numerous restaurants have responded to this trend by adding a “light menu” section to their menus, which features healthier options for those who want to dine out without feeling guilty. Some “only healthy” restaurants have sprouted up all over the region, providing diners with a wide selection of dishes that are lower in calories and higher in nutritional value. While many of these eateries have become quite popular, others are still operating in the shadows and could use some help from the public to break into the spotlight.
In addition, as the food industry has become increasingly digitized in recent years (thanks in large part to COVID and lockdowns), delivery services and applications have yet another crucial role to play in promoting these new healthier outlets, especially among adolescents.
“It’s a Nation-Wide Responsibility” – Hamad Al Wazzan
According to Hamad Al Wazzan, “it is our responsibility as good citizens to promote such businesses and help not only the industry grow but also our people to live healthier.”
Product reformulation, improved labeling standards, restrictions on marketing and distribution to vulnerable groups, and disincentives to consumption of low-nutritional-value products like sugar-sweetened beverages through taxation are just a few examples of how industry initiatives and public-private partnerships have helped improve nutrition outcomes. These initiatives have largely focused on improving food safety or adding micronutrients to commonly consumed foods like flour, rice, and oil, as well as seasonings. In order to differentiate products that meet nutrient profiles and fortification standards, some companies have adopted a category branding strategy that features the use of a “quality seal” logo.
Together, public agencies and the private sector can slow the meteoric rise in demand for and supply of fast food while simultaneously increasing access to healthier options. There are a few ways to accomplish that:
- Foods served in public spaces and government buildings, and foods purchased with public funds should adhere to strict nutrition standards and healthy food policies.
- Improve the “availability and affordability” of healthy food options in schools, hospitals, and government buildings while limiting access to unhealthy options.
- Ensure that schools, hospitals, and government buildings have access to food with appropriate portions.
- Discourage or reduce the availability of sugary drinks in public places like schools, daycares, workplaces, and government offices.
- Raise the level of water availability to the public.
To sum up, the government should take measures to guarantee the availability of healthy food in appropriate portions, and people should exercise good judgment in order to preserve the health of the population as a whole and end the ravaging obesity epidemic.