Treat or Cheat? Usage and Attitudes Towards Healthy Foods in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
June 12th, 2014, Anton Marinov

Treat or Cheat? Usage and Attitudes Towards Healthy Foods in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Growing health concerns in Saudi Arabia is putting pressure on packaged food and drinks manufacturers to offer consumers healthier solutions. But is the demand for healthy food real? A glimpse of attitudes to food and snacking in the Kingdom suggests the market may still not be ripe for 'health' marketing.

Health and Wellbeing continues to be a growing trend around the GCC and Saudi Arabia in particular. World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, estimate that 1.6 billion adults world-wide are obese. Within KSA 60 percent of the population aged over 16 are deemed overweight, placing the country in 29th position among 194 countries.

Widespread coverage of the issue is registering with consumers. Data from YouGov's FMCG Oracle with 4,000 consumers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia confirms this. Close to half of those surveyed over May-August 2013 rate their personal health as a top priority with many mentioning cancer, heart disease, cholesterol, hyper-tension and particularly - obesity - as major and growing problems in their countries. In light of these concerns, the vast majority of consumers in Saudi Arabia state that they pay attention to what they eat.

But paying attention might not be enough, especially when the gap between perception and practices amongst consumers is so wide. Of those surveyed, over a third say that they eat out at main stream fast food outlets such as McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut at least once a month and the same percentage admit to having compulsive snacking habits ('Once I open a pack of chips, chocolate/biscuits I can't stop until I have finished it').

Snacking is widely adopted and viewed positively, with half of consumers agreeing that snacking is good for you and helps keep energy levels up throughout the day. For the majority, the nutritious composition of their snacks are not supporting healthy lifestyles, with nearly 30% of those surveyed claiming to indulge regularly in what they perceive to be 'unhealthy' snacks, with chips and chocolate topping the list. Consumption of cereals and cereal bars - perhaps the most popular existing 'healthy' snack in KSA at present – is negligible. Interestingly, however many consumers accept this behavior as natural and necessary, and are guilt-free, in spite of their rational understanding of potential health risks.

Rationally speaking, consumers understand many of the elements of nutritious food and food that is not 'harmful'. Healthy foods are identified by their ingredients which must be fresh, natural, lacking in preservatives and containing at least one 'good' or nutritious ingredient such as vitamins. But emotionally, healthy snacks are not delivering in the minds of consumers, as YouGov data shows, a third of consumers think healthy snacks are boring and less pleasurable. In addition, numerous exploratory studies conducted by YouGov on the topic also reveal that 'free from' and 'plus' versions (i.e. foods or snacks enhanced with healthy ingredients) can be rejected as not being as pleasurable and even less healthy. The mere presence of healthy ingredients signals 'control' and spoils the magic that such snacks promise.

Our interpretation of the data tells us that if marketers want to be able to support the health needs of the region, they need to explore how healthy messaging can deliver emotionally for consumers. Rather than taking something away from consumers with reduced fat (arguably a negative experience), FMCG companies need to develop product portfolios and brands that positively deliver on pleasure, taste and nutrition all at the same time - making products that are implicitly healthy using healthier ingredients but that are explicitly 'magical'. When it comes down to it, consumers in KSA, just like everywhere else in the world want to stay healthy and indulge at the same time.