The Middle East’s Vegan Food Market Is Growing Fast

Meat alternatives are becoming increasingly accessible worldwide, including in the Middle East. This month, UK-based vegan meat brand VBites announced its expansion into Spinneys — a supermarket chain with locations across the UAE, Qatar, Lebanon, Oman, and Pakistan — and Waitrose supermarkets in Dubai. 

Earlier this month, UAE-based Halal food brand Al Islami, one of the biggest frozen food producers in the Gulf Cooperation Council, launched its first vegan burger. Simply named the “Plant-Based Burger,” the patty is made from a blend of proteins, including sunflower, fava, and pea.

According to the company, the burger was designed to appeal to meat-eaters in terms of taste and texture. It is also the first in a series of vegan frozen foods that the company plans to launch this year.

Rise of the Middle East Vegan Food Market

The demand for plant-based foods is booming in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. Many consumers name health as the driving factor for reducing meat consumption. While additional market research is needed in the Middle East, evidence suggests that meat alternatives are gaining traction for the same reason.

Zubair Ahmad, head of marketing at Al Islami Foods, said in a statement: “We believe that the plant-based food trend is here to stay as people explore different ways to diversify their protein intake and become more health-conscious.”

Al Islami is not alone in pinpointing the rising demand for plant-based meat in the Middle East. In addition to introducing VBites, Spinneys kicked off the “Power of Plants” initiative. Intended to last until February 14, it showcases plant-based products to encourage customers to eat a more plant-rich diet. Available brands include Meatless Farm, Beyond Meat, Violife, and Quorn.

Last August, Spinneys reported a 600 percent increase in frozen plant-based food sales at its 36 Dubai locations, up 100 percent from 2019. 

“Vegan food products are seeing huge levels of growth,” Tom Harvey, commercial manager at Spinneys Dubai told Salaam Gateway. “We put a particular focus into the plant-based range that we have within our frozen category because it’s a good way of bringing good quality, highly nutritious and good-value products from all over the world as well as locally produced options to our customers.”

The craze started with the launch of the Beyond Burger in the UAE 2015, explained Somaia Basha, Middle East Analyst at Euromonitor International.

The global plant-based meat market hit $18.6 billion in 2019, with the Middle Eastern market accounting for $176.5 million. Its annual growth is projected to be 4-5 percent over the next four years.

Again, the interest appears to be driven by a rise in health-conscious consumers concerned by the negative health effects associated with meat, including an increased risk for heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Per capita meat consumption in the UAE is 73 kg per year. This exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended 18 kg. 

Basha noted that most people choosing plant-based options are “looking for something healthy. With COVID-19 and people becoming increasingly aware of what goes into their body, there has been a lot of demand for immune-boosting food and that funnels down into plant-based products positioned as healthier options.”

Opportunity in the Plant-Based Food Market

Mainstream chains are beginning to incorporate plant-based options into their menus. Starbucks locations in the UAE and Kuwait added vegan beef to the menu earlier this month. The launch was made in partnership with California-based food technology company Beyond Meat.

The options, a Beyond Meatball ciabatta sandwich and a wrap, both contain dairy so they are not vegan. But, Rana Shaheen, Regional Communications and CSR Manager for Starbucks Coffee MENA noted that the chain wants to appeal to “customers who want to eat more plant-rich foods.”

Domestic brands are also carving out a space in the plant-based market. Healthy Farm, a frozen food brand owned by Sharjah-based Albatha Group, launched a range of vegan meat including kebabs, burgers, meatballs, and chunks, in 2020. The company sources half of its ingredients, which include organic kale and spinach, from the UAE.

According to CEO Jacek Plewa, it is the first company to produce plant-based products in the UAE. The fast growth of the market signals an “opportunity for companies to enter the market,” he said.

However, in order to help the burgeoning market, the UAE government needs to introduce policies promoting plant-based nutrition, Plewa explained to FoodNavigator-Asia. This, in turn, would help attract investors and could help spread support for plant-based food across the Middle East. 

Supporting plant-based food could also boost food security, particularly if Middle Eastern companies source ingredients from local producers. Animal agriculture requires vast quantities of resources such as land and water. But focusing on plant-based ingredients would significantly reduce this usage. Exploring more sustainable proteins, such as fermented protein, could further boost food security and self-sufficiency in the Middle East.