Impact of Emirati food on blood sugar documented by UAE academics


A research team at UAEU tested the effects of 18 Emirati dishes on 88 volunteers to track their glycemic index and natural compositions

[Dr Ayesha Al Dhaheri, chair of the nutrition and health department at UAEU’s College of Food and Agriculture. Courtesy UAE College of Food and Agriculture)]
Academics at the United Arab Emirates University have compiled what they say is the first authoritative guide detailing the nutritional composition of traditional Emirati foods and its impact on blood sugar levels.

Led by Dr Ayesha Al Dhaheri, chair of the nutrition and health department at UAEU’s College of Food and Agriculture, the research team tested the effects of 18 Emirati dishes — five breads, three entrees, five main dishes and five desserts — on 88 volunteers to come up with a comprehensive list of each dish’s macro and micronutrients, including the glycemic index, which is the rating system for how carbohydrates in food affects an individual’s blood sugar level.

“We launched this research to address the lack of information available on national Emirati food — the traditional foods,” said Dr Al Dhaheri. “There was nothing about the nutrients composition, there was nothing about the foods’ correlation with the disease prevalence in the UAE. A person can tell you what they eat, but without such nutritional information, you cannot analyse their dietary information because you need that baseline, you need to know how much carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, or even caffeine in a diet.”

The first international table of glycemic index was published in 1995 and included 565 food entries. The most recent version, published in 2008, contains the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) values if 2,487 food items, according to a report co-authored by Dr Al Dhaheri.

“However, the majority of the published GI and GL values are from Western countries and not much data are available about the GI values of Arabic foods, particularly Emirati foods,” according to the study “Glycaemic index and glycaemic load values of commonly consumed foods in the United Arab Emirates,” published earlier this year in the British Journal of Nutrition. “The main aim of this study is to provide reliable values of GI and GL of some commonly consumed foods in the United Arab Emirates.”

The study is of particular value to the country because “all of the evidence-based recommendations for the management of diabetes from the major diabetes organisations around the world – the American Diabetes Association; Canadian Diabetes Association and Diabetes UK for example – now advise people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes to use the GI or GL as part of the nutritional management of their condition,” according to the University of Sydney, which manages the

[Harees. Pawan Singh / The National]
Glycemic index was initially used in the prevention and management of diabetes, but further research suggests it can also help in the prevention and management of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, coronary heart disease and certain forms of cancer, according to the report.

“Recent scientific evidence indicates a possible role of low-GI diets in the treatment and prevention of diabetes mellitus, obesity, hyperlipidaemia and CVD by improving insulin sensitivity, regulating appetite, lowering fasting insulin and C-reactive protein levels, reducing total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol, and regulating blood pressure,” the authors wrote.

“This is why we classify food as low and high glycemic index – to warn the people that you need to consume more low glycemic index food and to reduce the consumption of high glycemic index food,” said Dr Al Dhaheri. “Much of the research ends up concluding that high glycemic index food will increase consumption, the intake of food, and therefore can increase the weight of an individual, and if you have obesity, obesity is a main factor for other diseases, like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other complex diseases.”

According to the World Health Organization, 8 per cent of the population in the UAE has diabetes. 70.7 per cent is overweight and 34.5 per cent is obese.

The 37 male and 51 female volunteers who participated in the study were recruited from the UAEU campus community and required to complete a health questionnaire and supply body measurements. Prior to the test day, the volunteers had to fast for 12 hours. Their blood was collected numerous times on the day of the test: once at the beginning to establish a fasting blood sample, and then every 15 minutes for the first hour after consuming the dish. More blood samples were collected 90 minutes and 120 minutes after the volunteers ate the Emirati food.

[Varieties of leqemat. Courtesy Seven Sands]
“You need to assess how this food reacts in a human body after consumption, especially in terms of the blood glucose level, after 15 minutes, a half an hour, one hour and up to two hours, because when we feel hungry, this mean that our blood glucose level has dropped down and our system will trigger the brain to feel hungry,” said Dr Al Dhaheri. “Then we end up eating food to reduce the hunger, but when a food is high with protein or high with fibre, we end up feeling satisfied, we are not hungry anymore. And this is where our blood sugar is stable in our blood. Or the food that we have consumed is releasing the sugar gradually, not at one time.”

Each food was tested by at least 15 participants, which is higher than the international standard of 10 required for glycemic index testing, according to Dr Al Dhaheri.

The results showed a “wide range” of glycemic index values, ranging from a low of 42 for harees to a high of 77 for Muhalla bread, on a scale of 0 to 100. Food that ranks 55 or lower on the glycemic index are considered low. These include whole wheat break, oatmeal, barley, pasta, sweet potato, most fruits and non-starchy vegetable and carrots.

Seven Emirati test foods were found to have low GI: chebab bread, khameer bread, beef harees, chicken biryani, leqemat, khanfaroosh and habba hamra. Six were classified as medium GI: Arabic bread, champ, machbous (fish), khabisa, batheetha and balalet. Five were ranked high: regag bread, mohalla bread, fendal, thareed (beef) and arseyah.

[Varieties of khameer bread. Sarah Dea / The National]
Dr Al Dhaheri said her team is working on compiling the information for 24 Emirati dishes in a booklet to be distributed for free to the public later this year. The research is ongoing as new Emirati foods are discovered, she said.

Burjeel Hospital clinical dietician Shukri Farah was not involved with the study but said its findings are timely.

“Especially with the number of people who have diabetes increasing, it’s good to know the glycemic index, and how to control our blood sugar,” said Farah. “It came at a good time because it’s needed, actually, because the number of diabetic people in the UAE is increasing year after year.”


Glycemic index of 18 traditional Emirati foods

Common Emirati foods and their associated glycemic index value (standard serving size noted in grams)


Arabic bread, glycemic index per 90g: 67, medium

Regag bread, glycemic index per 21g: 76, high

Chebab bread, glycemic index per 77g: 54, low

Muhalla bread, glycemic index per 47g: 77, high

Khameer bread, glycemic index per 76g: 47, low

Entrée dishes

Fendal, sweet potatoes boiled with dates, glycemic index per 150g: 74, high

Chami, cooked in buttermilk with white cumin seeds, glycemic index per 170g: 60, medium

Habba Hamra, red seed drink, glycemic index per 98g: 47, low

Main dishes

Harees (beef), cracked or coarsely-ground wheat, boiled and mixed with meat. Its consistency varies between a porridge and a dumpling, , glycemic index per 212g: 42, low

Thareed (beef), cooked stew poured on regag bread, , glycemic index per 245g: 74, high

Biryani (chicken), cooked basmati rice with boiled chicken, glycemic index per 261g: 52, low

Machbous (fish), cooked basmati rice with fried fish, glycemic index per 250g: 60, medium

Arseyah, similar to harees but cooked with white rice and blended with chicken, glycemic index per 261g: 72, high


Khabisa, semolina pudding with cardamom, glycemic index per 86g: 67, medium

Leqemat, deep-fried doughnut balls, glycemic index per 90g: 44, low

Batheetha, toasted flour mixed with raw date paste, glycemic index per 100g: 59, medium

Khanfaroosh, deep-fried hotcakes seasoned with saffron and cardamom, medium, glycemic index per 100g: 45, low

Balalet, stir-fried vermicelli mixed with sugar, ghee and cardamom, glycemic index per 144g: 63, medium

* Source: British Journal of Nutrition 

Source: The National