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Gluten-Free and Allergen-Free Diets in the UAE:

17 Oct, 2023

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Living with food allergies or intolerances, such as gluten sensitivity, can be a challenging and life-altering experience. Fortunately, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has seen a surge in awareness and options for those following gluten-free and allergen-free diets. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the nuances of these dietary choices in the UAE, from understanding allergies to finding the right path to a safe and enjoyable food journey.

1. Understanding Food Allergies and Intolerances

Before embarking on a gluten-free or allergen-free diet, it's essential to understand the key concepts related to food allergies and intolerances.

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1.1 Food Allergies

Food allergies involve an adverse immune response to specific proteins in certain foods. The reactions can range from mild, such as hives or a runny nose, to severe and life-threatening, like anaphylaxis. Common allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, and shellfish.

1.2 Food Intolerances

Food intolerances, on the other hand, do not trigger an immune response but can lead to digestive discomfort and other symptoms. Lactose intolerance, for instance, occurs due to the body's inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.

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2. Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) must avoid gluten.

2.1 Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten consumption. It causes damage to the small intestine and can lead to various health complications. Diagnosing celiac disease often involves blood tests and biopsies.

2.2 Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition where individuals experience symptoms similar to those of celiac disease without having the autoimmune response. Diagnosis is challenging, and it often involves the exclusion of other possible causes of symptoms.

3. Gluten-Free and Allergen-Free Diets in the UAE

The UAE has seen a significant growth in awareness and accommodation for gluten-free and allergen-free diets. Here's how to find your path:

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3.1 Dining Out

Many restaurants in the UAE offer gluten-free and allergen-free menu options. However, it's crucial to communicate your dietary needs clearly to the waitstaff and chefs to avoid cross-contamination.

3.2 Food Labeling

Food labeling regulations in the UAE have improved, making it easier to identify gluten-free and allergen-free products. Look for "gluten-free" and allergen-specific labels when shopping.

3.3 Specialized Stores

Specialty stores and online retailers in the UAE provide a wide variety of gluten-free and allergen-free products. These stores stock items like gluten-free flour, dairy-free milk, and allergen-friendly snacks.

3.4 Support Groups

Joining local support groups and online communities can be invaluable. These groups provide information, share experiences, and offer emotional support for individuals navigating dietary restrictions.

4. Traditional Middle Eastern Cuisine

Traditional Middle Eastern cuisine is renowned for its rich flavors, diverse ingredients, and time-honored culinary traditions. The region's food reflects its history, geography, and culture, and it offers a vast array of dishes to explore. While many Middle Eastern dishes are naturally gluten-free and allergen-friendly, some can pose challenges for those with dietary restrictions. Here's a closer look at traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and some of its most iconic dishes:

4.1. Hummus:

Hummus is a popular Middle Eastern dip made from cooked and mashed chickpeas blended with tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, and garlic. It's typically gluten-free and suitable for many diets. Enjoy it with fresh vegetables or gluten-free pita bread.

4.2. Falafel:

Falafel is a deep-fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, mixed with herbs and spices. It's naturally gluten-free, but cross-contamination can be a concern in some restaurants.

4.3. Shawarma:

Shawarma consists of thinly sliced marinated meat, often chicken, beef, or lamb, served in a pita or as a plate. The meat itself is gluten-free, but the sauces and seasonings used may contain gluten or allergens.

4.4. Tabbouleh:

Tabbouleh is a refreshing salad made from finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, and soaked bulgur wheat. To make it gluten-free, replace bulgur with quinoa or rice.

4.5. Baba Ghanoush:

Baba ghanoush is a roasted eggplant dip blended with tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. It's typically gluten-free and a delightful accompaniment to meals.

4.6. Kebabs:

Grilled meat kebabs, such as shish kebabs, are common in Middle Eastern cuisine. These dishes are naturally gluten-free and can be allergen-friendly when seasonings and marinades are checked.

4.7. Rice-Based Dishes:

Many Middle Eastern dishes incorporate rice, which is naturally gluten-free. Dishes like biryani, mansaf, and kabsa feature flavorful rice preparations with various toppings.

4.8. Dolmas:

Dolmas are grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, herbs, and occasionally ground meat. They are naturally gluten-free but may contain allergenic ingredients, so checking the filling is essential.

4.9. Kibbeh:

Kibbeh comes in various forms, but the most common is made from ground meat, bulgur, and spices. For a gluten-free version, you can substitute quinoa or rice for bulgur.

4.10. Middle Eastern Sweets:

Sweets like baklava, qatayef, and ma'amoul are popular in the region. Gluten-free and allergen-free versions of these treats are increasingly available, but always check ingredients.

5. Dining Safely

To dine safely in the UAE while following gluten-free and allergen-free diets:

5.1 Communicate Clearly

When dining out, clearly communicate your dietary restrictions to the restaurant staff. Ask about ingredients and potential cross-contamination risks.

5.2 Read Labels

Always read food labels carefully to identify allergens and gluten-containing ingredients.

5.3 Carry Allergy Cards

In case of language barriers, consider carrying allergy cards written in Arabic and English, explaining your dietary restrictions and the importance of avoiding cross-contamination.

6. Local Gluten-Free and Allergen-Free Options

In the UAE, you can find an array of local foods that naturally align with gluten-free and allergen-free diets. These are some traditional options:

6.1 Mezze

Mezze is a collection of small, flavorful dishes, many of which are naturally gluten-free. Hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, and olives are typically safe options.

6.2 Shawarma

Shawarma, made with marinated, thinly sliced meat, is often gluten-free. Ensure that the seasonings and sauces used are safe for your dietary requirements.

6.3 Grilled Meats

Middle Eastern cuisine offers a wide variety of grilled meats, from lamb kebabs to chicken shish tawook. These are generally gluten-free and allergen-friendly, but always double-check the marinades and spices used.

6.4 Falafel

While traditional falafel is made from ground chickpeas or fava beans and is naturally gluten-free, cross-contamination can be a concern. Confirm that the restaurant uses separate fryers for frying falafel and wheat-based items like breaded chicken.

7. Tips for Traveling in the UAE

If you are traveling within the UAE, or to any other destination in the region, keep these tips in mind to ensure a smooth and safe gluten-free and allergen-free experience:

7.1 Research in Advance

Before your trip, research restaurants and grocery stores that cater to gluten-free and allergen-free diets at your destination. Many popular tourist areas in the UAE offer diverse food options.

7.2 Learn Basic Phrases

Learn a few basic phrases in Arabic that can help you communicate your dietary restrictions more effectively. Phrases like "I cannot eat gluten" or "I have a dairy allergy" can be useful.

7.3 Pack Snacks

Always carry some gluten-free and allergen-free snacks with you, especially if you're venturing into remote areas where suitable food options may be limited.

Final Thoughts

Living with gluten sensitivity or food allergies in the UAE is increasingly manageable due to growing awareness and options for gluten-free and allergen-free diets. Understanding your condition, finding the right resources, and communicating your needs can lead to a safe and enjoyable culinary journey in the UAE. By following these guidelines and staying informed, you can savor the rich flavors of this diverse region while prioritizing your health and wellbeing.

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Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Some people need to avoid it due to celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).