Ghada Makarem knew she wanted to cut sugar out of her family’s diet, but found it impossible to find sweet foods that did not contain sugar. Luckily, she also loves baking and it led her to create The Healthy Treats, the UAE’s first sugar-free Arabic snack brand.
“I started experimenting with regular sweets — what I would call Western sweets, like chocolate cake, brownies and cookies,” she says. “But I felt there was a real lack of healthy Arabic sweets made from natural, nutritious ingredients. They literally did not exist, so I decided to concentrate on those.”
After months of sourcing ingredients and testing recipes in her kitchen at home, she and her husband, Amrou Masri, launched The Healthy Treats.
Only three months on and the Dubai-based company already has a growing band of fans ordering directly from them online or via platforms such as Deliveroo, Careem and Talabat.
“When we started, the main focus was to produce something that, when you looked at the ingredients, you knew exactly what you were eating. There is nothing there that you can’t pronounce,” says Makarem, who moved from Lebanon to Dubai 11 years ago to work in fashion retail.
“People seem to really like the taste. We have some very loyal clients who order every week, which I didn’t expect to have so soon. We also have a lot of diabetic customers ordering from us regularly. You can still have a sweet tooth with a healthy option.”
All the ingredients in Makarem’s healthy treats are natural and unprocessed, such as oats and almond milk and ground almonds instead of white flour. Natural honey and maple syrup provide the sweetness along with – of course – dates. She might add a little cinnamon and cardamom “for extra flavor,” she says.
A favorite among her customers are dates maamoul, the traditional date-filled cookies made with buttery pastry that melts in your mouth. Makarem’s modified version of dates maamoul contains no sugar but are still sweet enough to satisfy anyone.
“The amount of sugar in the traditional recipe is insane, even though dates are already sweet,” says Makarem, 32.
She and her husband, who have a four-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter, decided to cut out sugar three years ago.
“It wasn’t difficult. We just stopped,” she says. “For me personally, there were no unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.”
They soon noticed the benefits, however, and now the whole family shuns the stuff.
“More energy and more focus, definitely,” she says. “We even converted our nanny. Anyone who comes to my house will not find sugar. I don’t buy it and we don’t miss it at all.”
But what if her children go to their playmates’ homes and are given chocolate there and then start demanding it at home?
“For now, I can control what my children eat and I’m doing my level best to keep them on track. My kids like fruits and veg and that’s what their friends get if they come to play at our house. Kids are not born with bad eating habits — they learn them from what they are given to eat.”
Basbousa (a coconut yogurt and semolina cake) and sfouf (turmeric cake) are among the other Middle Eastern delights available from The Healthy Treats, as well as peanut butter and oat cookies, chocolate cake, cheesecake and more. For now, the business is online-only but there are plans to open a cafe in the future.
What tips can she offer others who want to cut sugar out of their lives but still enjoy sweetness?
“Experiment,” says Makarem.”For example, mashed up bananas are really good in cakes. So is apple sauce. Just remember: sugar is not essential.”
Check out The Healthy Treats on Instagram and Facebook, either call or send a message to 0561092924 (delivery done within one hour in Dubai). Orders can also be placed on Deliveroo, Talabat and Careem.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.