GAZA - Diabetics and the calorie-conscious can enjoy a richer diet at Gaza's first health food store, where cookies, sweets and other foods are prepared with a sugar substitute.

Hana Al-Wakeel opened her "Healthy Home" shop two months ago, after the 32-year-old optometrist shifted her focus from eye care to cooking after identifying a gap in the market for diabetics and those seeking healthier foods.

Instead of sugar, she uses stevia, a sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia plant. It is one of the sugar substitutes approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use by diabetics, who must closely monitor their blood sugar levels.

"(My customers) are people on a diet, people with diabetes and people who shun white sugar … people who eat healthily and don't like fats and oils," Wakeel told Reuters inside the small store in Gaza City.

Buying muffins and cookies in the shop, Emme Moataz, 22, said: "I have been following a healthy style for a while and at last I found a place making these things. I take my stuff from them now."

Wakeel said parents with diabetic children are among her top customers.

"Many children have diabetes and it feels good to hear mothers and fathers say they let their children pick what they want with no worries," she said, mixing low-fat chocolate to prepare pancakes.

Palestinian health officials said about 100,000 people suffer from diabetes in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of 2.3 million.

"It makes me happy that there are people who care about this category of people. It makes it possible to come to a guaranteed store, without having to think where to go," said Mahmoud Abu Al-Ouf, a diabetes patient.


(Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Emelia Sithole-Matarise) ((; 00970599401958; Reuters Messaging: