food / travel

It May Be Vegan, But That Doesn't Mean It's Healthy

A walnut spread - but with plenty of palm and coconut oils
A walnut spread - but with plenty of palm and coconut oils
Berit Uhlmann

MUNICH — Surely vegan offerings are healthier, and easier on the figure. More natural in any case. Many consumers have even become moralistic about the vegan products they put into their shopping baskets. But a survey by a Hamburg consumer group, the Verbraucherzentrale, shows that these attitudes and expectations are often wrong. They tested 20 vegan food products — mainly tofu sausages, cheese alternatives and soy drinks — and only two emerged with relatively good marks.

Four of the products were notable for their high fat content. Among those were a milk-free Hirtenkäse, or herder’s cheese, that contained 40% more fat than standard feta. In five of the products, the testers found high levels of saturated fatty acids that are considered damaging to both the heart and circulation. And the testers also found unusually high salt content in five cases: 100 grams of some meat-replacement products and spreads contained a third of the daily recommended amount of sodium.

The testing also showed that many vegan products are not necessarily natural. “Imitating animal products partly means using more additives because in most cases you couldn’t make the product at all if you didn’t, or at least not with a similar taste,” Verbraucherzentrale reports. Additives include thickeners, dyes and artificial aromas.

Vegans and vegetarians who do not banish any and all processed products from their diets cannot escape the tricks of the food industry. When it comes to names, for example, something like “Bio-Plus-3” may sound organic, but it requires reading the small print on the package to discover that it’s contents are not entirely natural. Meanwhile, a cranberry bar turns out to contain mainly almonds, date paste and only a smattering of berries.

A picture of the Swiss Matterhorn is depicted on one drink package, even though the ingredients come from various European countries. But on most product packaging, consumers would be unable to ascertain where the main ingredients were sourced. Processed vegan products usually end up frustrating consumers eager to buy regional because they want to help reduce long-haul fuel use and support the local economy.

The Verbraucherzentrale also calls for more transparency by the manufacturers of vegan products when it comes to dealing with consumer inquiries. Only 40% of the companies it contacted responded to questions within three weeks. “And in only a few cases could the contact be described as good,” the testers write.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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