The Covid-19 pandemic caused substantial changes in how people live their lives when it came to health, work life balance, and travel plans.
The global health crisis saw the public grappling to adapt to what was termed the 'new normal' as travel plans were put on hold, remote working and learning held sway as offices and schools closed their doors and the majority of us spent a lot more time at home.
It prompted a wave of new trends which have remained with us long after lockdowns, for example, the increase in use of video technology such as Zoom and a spike in online shopping.
A rising focus on home grown cooking also came to the fore, especially among younger people, providing a welcome health benefit during a troubling time.
However, now that lockdowns are ending across the world, there is a danger that convenience will lead to a return to the bad habits of old.
This week food industry experts warned of an emerging trend showing a rise in the number of people consuming junk food.
Slipping back into old habits
“People are drifting back to junk food because everything is opening up again,” said Elwen Roberts, a TV chef from Wales who was taking part at the Gulfood trade show in Dubai, during the week.
“Time is an issue for a lot of people now. Especially during the week when the temptation is there just to order something after work and have it delivered straight to them.
“That’s definitely increasing and it’s a challenge for us in the industry to ensure people eat healthy and nutritious food, but it’s a challenge that has always been there.”
The task now for the industry was educating people they could still make healthy meals, even though they had less time than before, she added.
“We have to step in and say ‘did you know you can still make nutritious food in 20 minutes?’” said Ms Roberts, who serves as consumer executive for Hybru Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales).
“It will require us to be savvy and show that you don’t need a lot of ingredients and healthy recipes can be made quite simply.
“People are prepared to pay a little bit more as long as they know they are getting quality.”
A recipe for success
Her views were echoed by another expert who was also taking part in Gulfood.
“People don’t want to have to waste time using a lot of ingredients in the kitchen,” said Sylvain Nevado, sales and marketing manager at French firm Riviera, specialising in organic products.
“They like products that are ready and easy to use where possible.
“There is a demand for ready-made ingredients that wasn’t there two years ago.”
Another expert expressed concern over people abandoning their discerning taste for quality ingredients, developed when deprived of the instant gratification of fast food options during the pandemic.
“There is the risk of people going back to junk food and it’s a bit scary,” said Arnaud Monmarche, managing director of French company Prova Gourmet, specialising in premium pastries.
“Our company is in the premium segment and when you are trying to save money the first thing people cut spending on is pleasure.
“We have to make sure we keep educating people on the benefits of premium well-sourced ingredients that are more sustainable than cheaper, lower-quality items.”
Food for thought
The UAE announced a strategy to help improve the nation’s health in December.
The key themes of the project included tracking poor diet and lifestyle choices from an early age.
The targets included slashing the amount of trans fats, salt and sugar from the country’s diet to reduce levels of diabetes and obesity.
More than half of the residents at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi said they had been directly affected by heart disease or knew someone who had, according to the results of a 2021 survey.
There were more than 1,000 residents quizzed in the survey.
“I have noticed an increased number of patients coming to see in the post-pandemic era who are suffering from food associated disorders,” said Dr Abhinav Gupta, who specialises in internal medicine at Life Healthcare Group.
“There has been an increase in patients with elevated blood sugars and cholesterol levels, high uric acid counts and stomach infections which are all related to unhealthy food habits.”
The cause of the rise of people opting for quicker, more convenient and often less healthy food could easily be traced, according to Dr Gupta.
“Patients have told me they are busier than ever now that most people are back to the office,” he said.
“They don’t have time to cook food at home and because their workplace is so busy, many say they don’t have the time to wait for it to be prepared either.
“Patients have told me they don’t have time for anything but food that can be served to them within five minutes so they can get back to their desks.”
Dr Gupta, who works in a clinic in Dubai’s Jumeirah Village Circle community, said the issue is a common complaint among his patients.
“I’ve had conversations with several patients who said fast food is best for them because of their schedules,” he said.
“A lot of them are motivated by the cost as well. Fast food is often a lot cheaper than healthier alternatives and people are trying to spend a lot less these days.”
Just 18 months ago, the number of patients he saw with conditions caused by unhealthy food choices represented about 20 per cent of his clientele.
Now that figure has risen to at least 60 per cent, he said.
Not all the lessons learnt during the pandemic have been lost though, according to another expert.
Health kick lasts for some
“People are definitely more health conscious post pandemic and we see this across all age groups,” said Nathalie Haddad, founder of meal plan firm Right Bite and vice president of meal plans at cloud kitchen company Kitopi.
“Some customers come to us purely for weight loss, while others may have just started focusing on their well-being.
“We find that majority of the older population tend to be driven by medical conditions such as cholesterol, blood pressure, or obesity.
“Either way, people are taking care of themselves more, and with life getting busy again, convenience is key.”