In recent years parts of the Middle East (ME) have been experiencing a food-related public health crisis, with obesity levels rising rapidly across the region. Rates of those either overweight or obese reached more than 50 percent in both men and women in many Middle East countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Oman and United Arab Emirates. Alongside this there has been a sharp rise in type-2 diabetes. Rates of diabetes in parts of the Arabian Peninsula are over twice the global average, and much higher than in some other areas of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). According to the International Diabetes Federation Atlas, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia rank within the top 15 nations in the world for the highest rate of diabetes per capita.
Rising public & consumer pressure on food manufacturers
As a result there is increasing pressure from public bodies for food manufacturers to produce healthier products, with the introduction of a range of regulatory changes, proposals and consultations. These have a different emphasis in each country creating a complex challenge for food manufacturers in the region. For example the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health is introducing new legislation to encourage healthier formulations with lower salt and sugar levels, and the Iranian authorities have recently introduced maximum salt levels in snack products. They are also in the process of introducing legislation to reduce sugar levels in beverages, bakery and confectionery. Meanwhile consumers across the region are becoming more aware of what they eat and what goes into their food. They want food that is both nutritious and healthy, using ingredients that they recognize and are increasingly looking for natural ingredients and flavors. Awareness of environmental and sustainability issues is also increasing and as a result consumers are demanding sustainably and ethically sourced ingredients with proven credentials.
Manufacturers are rising to the challenge
However, research has shown that while consumers want to make healthier choices, they still expect food to taste delicious. Eating experience remains the ultimate deal-breaker – consumers will not buy a product again that does not deliver the enjoyable eating experience they expect. As a result of these competing pressures, food manufacturers are moving towards simpler, shorter, more natural ingredients lists with proven sourcing credentials.
“Eating experience remains the ultimate deal-breaker – consumers will not buy a product again that does not deliver the enjoyable eating experience they expect”
Truly understanding consumer needs
The starting point for successfully responding to consumer challenges has to be understanding their needs and the differing consumer preferences across the Middle East region. Consumers consider natural ingredients much more important in some categories that others. This can have significant implications for manufacturers considering reformulation. The key here is to understand where reformulation is most relevant and focus on products and categories where this makes the most difference. Givaudan’s own research shows that there are two distinct product groups where natural flavor solutions add value for consumers. The first category is where the naturalness and authenticity of the whole product is essential and demanded by consumers, such as yoghurt, meat products and fruit juices. In these categories, natural flavors are seen to have a high impact on taste. The second is products that are perceived as less natural, such as carbonated soft drinks, stock cubes and ready meals. In these categories a natural flavors claim can make the product more desirable. The nutrition label and front of pack design and claims are where this all comes together. This is where consumers head to check if a product meets their needs.
The best solutions from nature
For manufacturers, successful reformulation must simultaneously meet consumer expectations, regulatory and labelling requirements, technical and process needs, as well as proving cost effective – a multifaceted challenge. Choosing a natural flavor solution addresses consumer needs for ingredients that are as close to nature as possible. Flavor solutions incorporating the taste tools can also help address the challenges of healthier reformulation, by delivering great taste in products where manufacturers have reduced ingredients like salt, fat and sugar which can decrease the overall appeal of the product. Reformulation is about more than simply replacing ingredients like fat, salt or sugar. Reducing the levels of these ingredients affects a product’s aroma and mouthfeel, as well as its taste.
Looking to the future
Across the Middle East and North Africa, the demand for more natural foods is expected to continue as health concerns grow and consumers become more health conscious. In response to these concerns public pressure for healthier food choices will continue to increase in the region, creating an increasingly complex regulatory landscape for manufacturers to navigate.
Africa & Middle East