Restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia will have to display the calorie content of foods for the first time, in an attempt to tackle rising levels of obesity.
The move by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority – which came into effect yesterday - is part of wider efforts under Saudi’s 2030 Vision to address public health concerns.
Rising obesity levels – and the consequent increase in preventable lifestyle diseases – have long been a serious issue in Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are among eight Middle East countries that have the world’s highest levels of obesity among adults, with between 27 per cent and 40 per cent of the population affected. In the UAE one in three children are either obese or overweight.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in making calorie-labelling mandatory. The US introduced a national menu labelling policy in May last year.
The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care is also seeking views on its plans to introduce such a policy.
The Saudi plan was first set out by the food authority in the summer. But some business owners in the country took to social media to say they have been caught off guard by the policy and feared being fined. Others said they did not know how to calculate calories.
Restaurants have been given a grace period to comply with the bylaw and the Saudi food authority has also prepared a guidebook for business owners. It offers tips on how to reduce calories in meals and drinks served to customers.
Two years ago authorities in the UAE have said they were working to incorporate a food-labelling rule for dining establishments, in January 2017,although this has not yet been rolled out.
Dr Waffa Ayesh, director of clinical nutrition at Dubai Health Authority, said at the time: "Requiring restaurants to give consumers nutritional and calorie information in a direct and accessible manner will help them make informed and, hopefully, healthy dietary choices.
"More information is better than less or no information. Healthy nutrition is one of the pillars of well-being and good health."
In July last year, an online poll by YouGov Omnibus found that the rapid rise of entertainment on mobile phones and tablets was a major contributor to increasing childhood obesity in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and that almost nine out of 10 children spent an average of two and a half hours a day on their mobile devices.
Meanwhile, a report in December by Colliers International – Diabesity: Impact on the Mena Region – found the number of diabetic patients in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to increase by 119 per cent over the next 26 years.
Yesterday, Dr Ramzi Alshaiba, medical director at Bareen International Hospital in MBZ City in Abu Dhabi, welcomed the idea of labelling being introduced in the UAE, but said that the measure needed to be part of a bigger drive to educate the public to ensure real effect.
"It's a good idea, people should be aware of what kind of food they are eating," he said.
"But first people need to understand how to deal with obesity. In my practice I've seen young people who are obese while their parents say they're healthy. They don't understand.
"Whether you tell them [junk food] has high calories or not, it's very tasty and people will continue to eat it.
"Doctors, the media, everyone has to deal with this health problem. It's education that's essential because if you don't know what's happening to your body, you won't be able to avoid it."
The new Saudi law applies to:
Restaurants and cafes
Ice cream parlours
Juice and fresh fruit vendors
Where the calories must be displayed:
Phone and web applications