Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Calorie or ... Calorie?

When we first arrived in Qatar, the abundance of food products from all over the world were both tantalizing and overwhelming. In the beginning we experimented quite a bit, and often indulged in purchasing an assortment of new, fascinating and often delectable items. Some things we liked and have since remained loyal to, some we did not. In the fervor of the moment we often overlooked the nutritional value of many of the products we purchased.

Now that the honeymoon period is over, I carefully watch what we eat and try to obtain healthier alternatives. I also regularly read the food nutrition and ingredient labels. I hardly see ingredients like ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ (also known as the much hyped ‘trans fat’) and various forms of ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ in much of the products here, except in the American imports. However, I often do see ‘palm oil’ which is high in saturated fats and equally unhealthy as trans fats, along with the highly undesirable ’monosodium glutamate (MSG)’ in many products, mainly in Asian imports. Even though junk food (snacks such as chips, confectionary items etc) from all over the globe is widely available in great profusion; my children are thankfully not susceptible to much of it. We generally stick to the things we enjoy, both our new finds and old favorites from back home. The fact we are developing brand loyalty is an indication that we have planted our roots in our adopted home.

Activia I have a tremendous love for dairy products; therefore it is not unexpected that one of the items I was drawn to and now greatly enjoy is laban. It is best described as a subtler, creamier and less tart version of buttermilk. It comes unsalted so one can flavor it according to taste, though most drink it plain. Activia, a product of Dannon, is a brand of laban that I usually buy, since it comes fortified with probiotic cultures, which are beneficial to the digestive system. I usually drink it lightly salted with a bit of ground roasted cumin sprinkled on top. It somewhat reminds me of the popular Iranian drink called dugh (minus the club soda), something I used to drink once as a poor college student (they are great with falafels!).

Upon reading Activia’s nutrition label, I found that 100 ml (3.38 US fluid ounces) of the product has 62 kcal’s. Since I am not much familiar with the metric unit, I asked K & H to do some research at tell me how many calories it has. After a few minutes they came up with the number - 62,000 calories. So an 8 oz. glass has 146,3600 calories, enough calories to sustain an average person on a 2000 calorie a day diet for over 741 days!

This number seemed outlandish, to say the least. So I decided to do some research of my own and here is the outcome:

There are 2 types of calories, the first is called the gram calorie (aka small calorie) which is used in scientific context and is often written as cal. It approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C. The second kind of calorie (aka large calorie) is called the nutritional calorie, the term North Americans are more familiar with. The term kcal is the same as what we commonly call ‘calorie’. So, both colloquially speaking and in nutrition and food labeling, the term "calorie" almost always refers to the kilogram calorie. Hence, 1 nutrition calorie = 1 kcal = 1000 gram calories.

So, K & H were both right yet (thankfully) wrong. I can also discuss how all this relates to kjoules, but I think I have now confused everyone adequately, including myself.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Doha 18th International Book Fair

Doha 18th Book Fair Logo We recently attended the Doha 18th International Book Fair, sponsored by the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage. This is an annual event and was held at the magnificent new Qatar International Exhibition Center in the West Bay area of Doha. The exhibition was extremely well attended. We had arrived at 6 pm presuming we were early, since most people here tend to go out later at night, but we were in for a shock. Although the center has a huge parking lot, it was completely full. Some had even parked in the surrounding open grounds. Needless to say, parking was a nightmare, as it usually is at popular events and most shopping centers. We eventually followed someone with shopping bags and took their spot.

His and Hers Books It was a mammoth event, with over 100 stalls and vendors. Major publishing houses from all over the Middle East (namely Syria, Egypt, Jordan and UAE among them) displayed their wares, along with a few Western ones such as Penguin and Scholastic. The vast majority of books - I would estimate at least 80-90% - were in Arabic. Many were religious books. We found a stall that specialized in Islamic texts in English, from where we picked up several excellent books. We saw many exquisite Qurans of all sizes, some which were over two feet! Seeing I was missing out on such great books, it fortified my inspiration to learn Arabic; something on my to-do list while I am living here.

Choices available in the general English section though, were scant. I had gone there with the presumption I would be able to pick up some good reading material, but came back empty handed. I did, however, see the British influence in this country. Qatar was once (like much of the world) a British colony. It regained its independence in 1971. I saw books by Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, and the ever popular Barbara Cartland. There were also the classic novelists; Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin, Rudyard Kipling, and the bard himself, William Shakespeare, just to name a few.

A's bookThere were several good stalls for very young children which had both games and educational material. Though most were in Arabic, at this age language is less of a barrier. We all agreed A had the best shopping spree. We bough several educational items for him in addition to a few delightful and traditional Arabic toys.

I was also pleased to see college aptitude test preparation books (TOEFL, SAT and a few GRE & GMAT’s) were both in great supply and demand. Qatar places a great deal of importance on education. Guided under the auspices of the Emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah, this is home to the
Qatar Foundation’s Education City, which boasts branches of such prestigious US universities as the Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Melon Schools of Computer Science and Business, Texas A&M University for Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical and Petroleum Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts, and soon to be added in 2008, Northwestern University Schools of Journalism and Communication. All universities offer four years Bachelors degrees, with the exception of Cornell, which offers a 6 year Doctor of Medicine degree.

Though there are plenty of book stores here, the majority are in Arabic. The only western outlets are Jarir Book Store and the newly opened Virgin Mega Store. Selections at both stores are limited and prices are exorbitant. There is a great demand here for good book stores. Though back home I preferred to go to independent book sellers, where I not only found the latest best sellers and other new books, I also found many rare items as well as some funky finds. But I can see how well the giant conglomerates like
Barnes & Noble and Borders will do. I hope someone from the New Store Development department is reading this!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

You want fries with that?

Super Size MeI recently saw the Academy Award nominated documentary ‘Super Size Me’ by Morgan Spurlock. Though this film had been released in 2004, I did not get a chance to view it until recently. In this film Spurlock documents his life as he eats three meals a day for thirty days at McDonalds. All daily calories consumed by him (which are about 5000) must be purchased solely at McDonalds. Whenever an employee requests to ‘super size’ his meal ( in which one receives a much larger soft drink and french fries for a few extra cents), he must accept. He must also try everything on the menu at least once.

Throughout this ‘experiment’ Spurlock is frequently monitored by his doctors and nutritionist, who greatly advise him against it. This film documents the effect this diet has on him, both physically and psychologically. After the release of this film, the practice of ‘super sizing’ a meal has been discontinued at McDonalds, and more healthy alternatives have been added to the menu. Though this movie targets McDonalds and focuses on Americans and their appalling eating habits, the detrimental addiction of over-indulging in fast food is rapidly becoming an international predicament.

After viewing this film I felt compelled to write this entry, since this dilemma is pertinent here as well. Eating out is one of the national pastimes, and over the years, fast food chains have become exceedingly popular. So much so, that when a franchise opens a branch in a new location, it is announced in every major newspaper. Besides McDonalds, most of the fast food giants such as Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins have firmly established themselves here and are hugely popular. At food courts in malls, lines for these restaurants tend to be the longest.

Unfortunately, obesity is a rapidly growing epidemic here as well, among both the Qatari’s and expats. Sadly children are the fastest growing group. Diabetes has become the national disease. The traditional Qatari diet, however, is parallel to the so-called Mediterranean Diet, consisting of mainly fruits, vegetables, grains and lentils, while dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in moderate amounts.

Fortunately we also have many healthy alternatives, including numerous shwarma & falafel joints, freshly grilled kebabs and row upon row of glistening mahogany rotisserie chicken eateries, both which are served with khubz (unleavened Arabic flat bread), salad and small cups of plain yogurt. Also popular are the much beloved juice stalls found in almost every street in every neighborhood, where one can get an assortment of just-prepared, comparatively healthier, sandwiches and fresh squeezed juices from a large variety of seasonal fruits (just remember to tell them to hold the sugar!), all at a fraction of the price you would pay elsewhere. My personal favorite is the club sandwich with layers of chicken, cheese, egg and fresh vegetables, along with refreshing pomegranate juice in the winter months and luscious mango in summer.

I would recommend this film/documentary to anyone who has an addiction for fast food or knows someone who has. With the exception of a few scenes, it is also appropriate to watch with older children. It has definitely been an eye opener.

The following are select web sites for further reference:

Super Size Me web site
Fast food facts from the Super Size Me web site
Qatar Diabetes Association
American Diabetes Association
American Heart Association
Recent article on childhood obesity in the Penisula newapaper
US Food and Drug Administration
Information on the
Mediterranean diet