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The first time I bit into an organic egg the flavour took me back to my childhood. Suddenly, I remembered what eggs should taste like: a creamy, buttery yolk with an earthy back note, all wrapped in a perky, slightly springy white. They cost seven times the price of the entry-level variety at the organic supermarket in Satwa, but since that first whimsical purchase, eggs are the one grocery item I won’t compromise on, even when I’m trying to cut costs. They don’t just taste better, I discovered after taking a nutrition science course, but are also healthier with nutrients that are more easily bioavailable.

“Adding more organic food to your diet is better for your overall health, especially gut health and the immune system,” agrees Sabina Nassar, an Emirati dietician who is licensed by the Dubai Health Authority. “Organic food is richer in certain nutrients such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, it is fresher, and it is free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and you expose your body to fewer pesticides and consequently, fewer risks.”

High demand

Little wonder, then, that as the pandemic has prompted a reassessment of our health choices, organic food has correspondingly clocked a hefty sales increase worldwide, according to Ecovia Intelligence focusing on ethical product industries. Online retailers are reporting the highest growth with supermarkets in the US, France and India seeing transaction volumes for organic foods rise between 25 and 40 per cent over the course of the pandemic.

That trend continues to build. Euromonitor International estimated the market size for UAE organic fresh food last year at 251,000 tonnes, up 6 per cent on the previous year. It expects the sector to grow at an annual rate of 5 per cent to reach aggregate volumes of 325,000 tonnes in 2025. Organic packaged food similarly grew at 9 per cent between 2019 and 2020 and will continue at 7 per cent annually from an estimated market value of $34 million (Dh124.8 million) in 2020 to $47 million in 2025.

The pandemic has accelerated demand for organic fresh fruits and vegetables that are well known and trusted.

- Monique Naval, Senior Analyst, Food and Nutrition at Euromonitor

“Consumers are taking greater ownership of themselves and prioritising their health, so prevention has taken precedence. Organic food is deemed healthier than regular produce and can help to meet consumers’ most immediate needs,” says Monique Naval, Senior Analyst, Food and Nutrition at Euromonitor. With tightened supply chains having underscored the importance of local supplies, she expects UAE-grown organic produce to gain over imported fare. “The pandemic has accelerated demand for organic fresh fruits and vegetables that are well known and trusted. Local sourcing is therefore increasingly sought in connection with high quality and food safety as well as a means of supporting the local economy,” she says, pointing out that this could spell significant changes for food supply chains.

Go local

Dr Remy Shanker, Wellness Specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi, says it is often worth considering how far a particular item has travelled before it appears in UAE supermarkets. “Locally grown produce could very well be safer and cheaper. There is often a higher nutritional value and gut absorption associated with local produce given that our gut bacteria naturally adapts to the soil and water of the terrain where produce is cultivated.

There is often a higher nutritional value and gut absorption associated with local produce given that our gut bacteria naturally adapts to the soil and water of the terrain where produce is cultivated

- Dr Remy Shanker, Wellness Specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi

“With the latest food security laws in the UAE, it has become possible to reimagine local produce cultivated using organic farming techniques making it nutritious and affordable, while creating a more positive culture towards the climate and environment,” Dr Shanker says. UAE-grown cucumbers, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants and more are affordable, price-matched and safer to consume, she says, and local brands now offer hormone-free, antibiotic-free poultry.

Affordable options

Organic fare requires longer farming time and produces much smaller yields. Nevertheless, associated price premiums have declined over the past decade, from 9 per cent in 2014 to 7.5 per cent in 2019, Nielsen data from US supermarkets shows. Shop local and you’re looking at further reductions – which chimes well with those other great pandemic-era concerns: tightened belts, pay cuts and employment insecurity.

if I could introduce only a few items, it would be best to focus on the most-used items so most of my intake comes from the organic foods.

- Sabina Nassar, Dietician

If your wallet doesn’t stretch to an all-organic shopping basket, upgrading just a few items can help. “A fully organic diet might not be very feasible and practical during the current situation,” Nassar says, “so if I could introduce only a few items, it would be best to focus on the most-used items so most of my intake comes from the organic foods. By adding the most important items first, so you feel the difference quickly and prioritise your finances in a way that could allow you to introduce new items with time.”

She suggests cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, which are the most used in salads, and antioxidant-rich strawberries, which can lift a bowl of oatmeal at breakfast or serve as a snack during the day. Add in eggs and milk for their nutrients and omega-3 oils, as well as grass-fed meat or poultry because they’re rich in minerals, vitamins (especially, hard-to-get B12), and healthy fatty acids. “Shop organic whenever possible but don’t stress out over it. If you can introduce a few items at a time, that’s advantage enough. If you can’t, make sure you’re eating clean and living a healthy lifestyle. That’s what matters most!”