Eat rich, live rich — the UAE’s organic food boom

The eating habits of many people in the region gives food for thought about future health. Sarah Dixon talks with a man who wants to give the UAE an organic alternative.

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By  Sarah Dixon Published  May 8, 2005

Eat rich, live rich — the UAE’s organic food boom|~|ORGANIC-ORACLE-200.jpg|~|ORGANIC ORACLE: Changing to a holistic diet after illness gave El Accad the drive to start his store.|~|YOU ARE what you eat — you get what you pay for. Your health is a reflection of what you put in your body, at least according to the man behind the UAE’s first complete organic food store. Twenty years ago Nils El Accad got some devastating news; his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Along with traditional treatment, his family began eating organic food. Despite all efforts, El Accad’s mother eventually passed away and he stopped paying attention to his own health. That was, until he got sick. Dizzy spells were making it impossible for him to function normally. Doctors couldn’t find a problem, so El Accad sought help from holistic medicine. What he learned alarmed him; his body was full of toxins. He was suffering from toxic build-up, acquired from years of ingesting chemicals and pollutants. That diagnosis changed his life. Guided by a homeopath, El Accad completely restructured his diet, turning back to organic, live foods and he got well. Now, El Accad is hoping to educate others as to the benefits of organic food by bringing them to Dubai. His new store, Organic Foods & Café, located in Satwa, is an effort to get consumers back to basics. El Accad says only in recent years have farmers turned to chemicals to increase production and guarantee a successful crop and longer shelf-life. Trying to keep up with consumer demand and keep the cost down is another incentive. The problem with this, according to El Accad, is the body ends up ingesting chemicals it doesn’t know how to deal with, so it attacks them as it would disease. Therefore, since the body is spending so much time fighting these “free radicals,” the immune system is compromised and can’t fight disease as effectively. The end result is colds, flu, allergies and even cancer. “Eighty to 90% of the diseases we get, long-term diseases, come from our food. It’s like smoking. It’s not that you have one cigarette and you die,” says El Accad, “you start smoking and 20 years later you get cancer. It takes a long time for all those toxins building up in your body, and all those chemicals that the body doesn’t know what to do with to overload you, weakening your immune system.” Citing scientific studies, the organic food industry claims its food has more vitamins, minerals, nutrients and tastes better than conventionally processed food. In fact, El Accad says his fruits and vegetables are 50% more nutritious than their pesticide-ridden counterparts. The average conventional apple, for example, is said to have 20-30 artificial chemicals on its skin, even after washing. What if you peel the same apple? El Accad promises the chemicals are still there and even more concentrated on the inside. So how do you know if food is truly organic? According to El Accad, if it doesn’t have a certifying symbol, it is not organic. “There are actually one or two things floating around that are not organic, they say they’re organic but they’re not. As a matter of fact, they say organic in English and natural in Arabic.” What’s the difference between natural and organic? “Natural means nothing,” says El Accad, “anything from this earth is natural basically.” For example, since white sugar comes from sugar cane, it can be called natural, even after it’s bleached and chemically treated, according to El Accad. “So you can take anything you want that’s in the ground, treat it whichever way you want (with chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides) and you can call it natural.” To ensure products that carry the certification on their packaging are truly certified organic, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved 90 certifiers as of last year, who audit organic food makers world-wide and ensure they are following the standards. In 2004, the organic food industry in the US alone totalled almost US$11 billion and it is expected to exceed US$15 billion in 2005. It is America’s fastest growing food business with a growth rate of 17-20%, which means by 2009, the organic food industry there could gross more than US$32 billion. The industry is also growing rapidly in the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. It is still dwarfed however, by the conventional food industry. Organic Foods & Café is modelled after American and European organic business plans. The US chain, “Whole Foods” grossed US$4 billion last year. However, El Accad is quick to point out that the popular grocery store is only 25% organic, while the 3500 products in his shop are almost all organic. Some of the seafood at Organic Foods & Café isn’t certified organic, but it does come from the open ocean rather than the Gulf, which El Accad says isn’t nearly as clean. There’s even a live lobster tank, if you fancy choosing your own dinner. Next to the seafood, you’ll find an array of organic meat including ostrich which is known for being very low in fat. It sells for just under DH43 per kilogram. El Accad imports his food directly from farmers around the globe, including those in the US, Canada, Europe, Africa and Australia. Many of the items are more expensive, but some are not. For example, you can buy organic instant coffee for US$4.76 per kilogram, which is less than Nescafé. An organic lemon from Africa however, will set you back US$5.85 per kilogram, compared with US$1.29 for conventional lemons at a typical Spinneys outlet in Dubai. When comparing organic with organic, El Accad’s food is cheaper than the region’s conventional markets. An organic apple at Organic Foods & Café costs about DH20 per kilogram, 3-4 dirhams less than Spinneys. Accad’s baby food is also cheaper, and he sells bio-degradable diapers for the environmentally conscientious. Since the store only sells food that’s in season, you may not find some fruits and vegetables year-round. But that’s the way it is supposed to be, says El Accad. In terms of his produce and other items costing more, he asks, “What is your life worth? Too many people are interested in what car they drive, what house they live in, where they eat and who they’re socialising with, rather than what they’re eating and how they’re living their life.” The variety of products on El Accad’s store shelves, which include Asian, Italian, and Mexican foods, also extend to organic cleaning supplies and cosmetics. Why is it important to use organic cream, lotion, deodorant and shampoo? “We absorb 40-60% of products through our skin,” El Accad claims. In fact, research has shown that lotions, including sunscreen, get into a mother’s breast milk while breast feeding. So it will come as no surprise that organic food proponents strongly believe going organic is especially important for pregnant women and children. A study conducted at the American University of Washington found children who ate organic foods were exposed to far fewer toxic pesticides than those that did not. Other studies indicate children exposed to elevated levels of certain pesticides are at a higher risk to develop bone and brain cancer, and childhood leukaemia. The UAE is slowly catching on to the concept of organic food. In addition to Spinneys and Choithram, there are smaller nutrition stores in Dubai that carry organic food, but they do not have the range of products found at Organic Foods & Café. If you want organic wine, you can find it at MMI. The liquor store carries an organic chardonnay (US$23) and sangiovese (US$24.50) from northern California, US. El Accad is currently working with both MMI and A&E to import more organic wines. There is a myth that if you don’t eat 100% organic, there’s no benefit. According to El Accad, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “You’re building up toxins in your body every day, and the slower the rate of build-up, the better. You’d be living in an illusion if you think you can eat 100% organic. You could never go out here. So, if you can get 50-75% you’re doing great.” When it comes to eating out, there are some chefs who are doing their part in trying to keep food in its natural, raw state. Stephane Buchholzer, the head chef at “Retro” in Dubai’s Le Meriden Mina Seyahi, likes to serve his diners raw food, a concept he learned from his love of Japanese cuisine. “You cannot serve fish unless it’s extremely fresh and I like to see the freshness of the product.” The fish Buchholzer uses is never farmed and always from the sea, which he says ensures it’s organic. He also prefers to use organic vegetables because “the taste is always better”. Buchholzer admits it’s not as easy to get organic food in the UAE as it is in New York and France where he learned his trade, but that is quickly changing. “In Dubai, gastronomy is something new, so organic food is a new market … In America, before 1994 there was (little) demand for it so it was very expensive to get, and by the end of the 1990s you could find it anywhere.” Even brand names are getting into the organic act. Kraft foods, Coca-Cola and General Mills are just a few conventional food companies that have purchased organic companies. El Accad is hoping UAE consumers will make organic eating part of their every day lives, so he can import organic products in bulk and bring his prices down. He would also like to convince local farmers that going organic is worth the effort. “I’m trying to make a difference, trying to get organic up and running and staying here. It’s not sustainable what we’re doing at the moment.” ||**||

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