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Alternative protein sources are the way forward in the UAE

The exponential growth of the world population is immensely challenging with regard to food security, both locally and globally. As a remedy for such challenges, Sustainable Development Goal 2, ‘zero hunger’ by 2030, has come into action. Alternative proteins are gaining attention due to their ability to act as protein-rich sources and are considered novel as well as superior to existing sources.

These proteins are made from various sources such as plants, algae and insects– also known as ‘meat mimics’– to cater to the needs of the growing population. Furthermore, cultured meat, or in other words lab-grown meat, is gaining interest – also due to its potential to keep animal cruelty at bay.

In light of such facts, a recent study in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) explored the knowledge, attitudes and willingness of native Emiratis in consuming alternative protein sources.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers (three undergraduate students and two PhD students) from the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) led by Professor Sajid Maqsood, aiming to shed light on consumers’ perceptions towards the transition to alternative proteins, including microalgae, edible insects and cultured meat.

The study surveyed a total of 1,666 participants (Emirati nationals) across seven Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain). The participants, aged between 18 and 65 years, were asked about their knowledge, attitudes and willingness to accept alternative protein sources in their day-to-day life.

Three-quarters of the participants (76%) were between the ages of 18 and 24, of whom the majority (67%) were female, while the rest were male. The study revealed that the consumers were partially willing to replace animal-based protein sources with alternative protein sources and the majority of the participants were well aware of alternative protein foods.

The study showed that the participants were more familiar with plant-derived alternative proteins than other sources such as insect-derived proteins. Strikingly, the majority of the participants (74%) preferred plant-based proteins over cultured meat (12%), microalgae (9%) and edible insects (5%).

The positive attitudes of the participants towards plant-based proteins suggested that they are not only willing to purchase and consume these foods but also recommend them to friends and family. Therefore, the willingness of the native Emiratis population to opt for plant-based proteins is highly promising in building a nation with profound food security and sustainability.

The researchers noted that there will be substantial variation across cultures on the acceptance of this dietary shift. Therefore, a deeper understanding of consumers’ perceptions of alternative protein-based food products is required to ensure commercial practicability.

The UAE has taken several steps towards promoting food security and sustainability. In 2018, the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment launched the National Food Security Strategy, which aims to diversify food sources and improve nutrition to ensure access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food – all year round.

According to the current study, inculcating the consumption of alternative proteins as a diversified food source aligns with the UAE’s initiatives on building sustainable food systems.

Thus, promoting awareness and equipping individuals with legitimate information on alternative proteins will contribute directly to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the UAE’s ‘Vision 2051’ goal of enhancing food security through diversity and innovation.

The lead author of this study, Professor Sajid Maqsood, professor and chair at the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine at UAEU, said: “Our findings suggest that a plant-based diet can be an effective way to reduce the consumption of animal-based protein. This is important because an increased consumption of plant-based proteins could be a promising approach to achieving food security in the UAE.”

The growing awareness of and interest in alternative protein in the UAE have paved ways for the food companies to extend their production on plant-based meat alternatives recently. Importantly, food companies such as IFFCO Group and Al Islami Foods have recently launched 100% plant-based ‘meat’ products in the UAE market.

Collectively, focused efforts from the federal bodies and the food industry in developing alternative proteins to build an integrated and a sustainable food system are making a quantum leap in the UAE.

The study lead, Professor Maqsood also concludes that “alternative proteins from various sources will be the way forward to build a sustainable nation”.

As the world accelerates towards a sustainable future, the UAE’s efforts in promoting food security and sustainability through alternative protein sources should be enhanced going into the future.

This is the fifth in a series of articles promoted by the United Arab Emirates University.


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