Appetite for healthy confectionery being fed

Healthy ice cream and frozen yoghurt chains move in to UAE hoping to cash in on the country's growing health consciousness.

DUBAI // Frozen yoghurt and healthy ice cream chains are flocking to the UAE, with at least five brands opening or planning to launch new shops, hoping to cash in on the country's growing health consciousness. Slick Yogo, Pinkberry and the healthy restaurant chain 40 Carrots started selling frozen yoghurt in the past six months, and Yogen Fruz and low-fat and low-sugar ice cream retailer Tasti D-lite are entering the UAE market this year.

Saeed Kalafchi, a managing director of Tasti D-lite UAE, said that although the UAE was crowded with restaurants and fast-food brands, there were few healthy options. Mr Kalafchi said that with high rates of diabetes and obesity in the country, demand was increasing for more wholesome eating. "Because people here are so unhealthy, they are starting to have more of a demand for healthy products, especially in food products," he said. One in five people have diabetes in the UAE, the second-highest rate in the world, the UN World Health Organisation says. One in eight children in the Emirates is classed as obese, also one of the highest rates in the world, the UN says.

As they become aware of these problems, more people across the region are thinking about nutrition, said David Edwards, the managing director of IMES Consulting Group, based in Dubai. "There is definitely a growing health consciousness across the Gulf, but it is most marked in the UAE because of the nature of the population - more western expats who are more knowledgeable about health issues, and of course a growing awareness of the sort of illness epidemics that are here," Mr Edwards said. Many of the low-fat ice cream and yoghurt chains plan to test the market in the UAE and expand across the Gulf.

Yogen Fruz, which signed a master franchise agreement with the UAE company Arcology Investments at the end of last year, will open its first store in Dubai next month. This will be followed by six more outlets this year in the UAE, and eventually 30 stores across the GCC within four years, said Ardavan Sahebkar Yazdi, the marketing manager for Arcology. "This is an issue at the moment, a problem people are facing with old-fashioned fast-food chains and restaurants that are not health-conscious."

Oliviero Cassini, the managing partner of Slick Yogo, which opened its kiosk at Dubai Mall in January, also hopes to expand his shop into a chain, with at least three outlets across the UAE and Saudi Arabia this year. "[Customers] are asking all the time what the calories are, what the fat contents are, all these questions related to health," Mr Cassini said. "People are looking for alternatives."

Tasti D-lite will be opening at least four outlets in the UAE this year, and aiming for 15 locations in the short to medium term, said Mr Kalafchi. It is unclear whether there is enough demand to sustain all of the shops opening in the region. "We think some of them will fade," said Masoud Kalafchi, Saeed's brother and also a managing director of Tasti D-Lite UAE. Mr Yazdi also anticipates tough competition: "There is going to be lots of these types of stores going to open in this region, and definitely not all of them can go ahead."

But Mr Cassini is more optimistic, saying more outlets will increase awareness of these products and their health benefits. "The fact that there are competitors, more chains, more companies out there is good for us. We see it as a positive thing," he said. "The difficulty will be to find a good location. And we all will be fighting for the same or similar locations." Mr Edwards said this would be the deciding factor.

"There is a limited number of locations where you are going to make success of a business like that, and once those locations are gobbled up, that is going to be the end of it."