Vegan Or Vegetarian? You Could Still Be On A ‘Cruel Diet’

7 mins
cruel diets, crackers, palm oil, ryvita, no palm oil

You think you’re doing your bit by being vegan or vegetarian, but ingredients lurking in everyday food and drink may mean you’re on a cruel diet that destroys habitats or entire species. Caroline Kent reports 

What you eat can change the world. You may order a healthy-sounding salad because you’re on a diet, or are happily vegan or vegetarian as you want to do your best for the future of our planet.

Most of us know the ethical and environmental problems presented by the meat and dairy industries that are under increasing scrutiny. From the greenhouse gases created on intensive meat farms, to the morally questionable methods of industrial dairy production – including forced over-milking: a painful and dangerous process forcing a cow to produce upwards of 20 litres at a time instead of the natural two – we all understand what experts across the globe are telling us: that a plant based diet is the way forward.

But sometimes even that isn’t enough. We investigated five everyday products that may seem convenient on the supermarket shelf, but actually create a cruel diet that damages the environment and can even lead to the extinction of animals…


A seemingly innocuous food, many crackers contain palm oil. Made from the pulp of fruits of the oil palm, it is a major culprit of deforestation across the Amazon, Malaysia and Indonesia (which recently became one of the world’s top producers of climate change-causing greenhouse gases thanks to its cultivation of palm oil). Palm is the second most-widely used oil in the world, often found in hair conditioner, vitamins, and other household products as well as food.

cruel diet, palm oil, destruction rainforest, crackers

Swathes of rainforest are destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Image: Shutterstock

Swathes of land are slashed and burned to make way for oil palm farms, destroying the habitats of – and burning alive – endangered species including the Orangutan, Sumatran tiger, rhino, and Asian elephant. Protecting crops comes at any cost. Orangutans are considered pests and shot to prevent them eating the palms. The exploited workers are frequently exposed to catastrophically toxic herbicides used to keep crops free of weeds.

cruel diet, orangutans, palm oil, rainforest

Orangutans are burned alive when their natural habitat is destroyed before planting palm oil. Image: Shutterstock

Many products that use palm oil aren’t clearly labelled and could appear under other named including: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, and many more. Check the ingredients list on your crackers. Ryvita Crispbread, Kavli Crispbread, Almond Thins and Tucker’s Gourmet crackers (all found in most supermarkets) are an easy palm oil-free alternative.

cruel diets, crackers, palm oil, ryvita, no palm oil

Ryvita crackers don’t contain palm oil so they aren’t part of a cruel diet. Image: Shutterstock


Those avoiding dairy often turn to soy milk to create an equally frothy cappuccino. It’s produced by soaking dried soybeans, grinding them with water, and filtering out the residue. The same soybean is also used in veggie burgers, non-dairy yogurt, and tofu.

Soy is big business, and it’s getting bigger. In 2014, sales of soy-based food in the US amounted to $4.6 billion, and that number is set to hit $17 billion by 2019. But the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warns that the damage caused by soy production is three fold: environmental, animal, and human.

cruel diet, soy plantation,

Soy production can damage animals, the environment and the people trying to live off the land. Image: Shutterstock

Sprawling soy plantations, mainly found in South America, are leaking run-off from the noxious chemicals used to keep soybean crops free of insects. This is threatening biodiversity in delicate rainforest ecosystems, and leaves endangered species, including the jaguar and giant anteater, without a habitat. Local people are being edged-out as soybean plantations snatch space previously used for growing the local community’s food and providing them with a livelihood.

The most ethical way to consume milk-alternatives is by making your own. Almond milk is easy: soak the nuts overnight, combine them with water in a blender, and then strain through either a thin tea towel or a nut milk bag.


Chocolate used to be seen as a luxury food reserved for the elite. But no longer. The biggest consumers are British, Swiss and German, each eating around 11 kilograms (24lbs) of chocolate a year (about the same weight as a car tyre).

As the chocolate industry has boomed, so has the demand for cheap cocoa, creating an US$80-billion industry. Much of the world’s chocolate is made in Western Africa (60 per cent of the Ivory Coast’s export revenue comes from cocoa) where on average, farmers earn less than $2 per day. In order to keep prices competitive, many farmers turn to the use of child labour on their cocoa farms.

cruel diet, cocoa beans, chocolate

Cruel diet: Many children still work on the cocoa plantations doing the back-breaking work instead of going to school. Image: Shutterstock

In 2016, Fortune reported that although big chocolate makers had been promising increased transparency and an end to child slavery in their industry for over a decade, 2.1 million West African children still do the back-breaking work of harvesting cocoa, putting their physical health in jeopardy and missing out an education.

In 2016, Fortune reported that although big chocolate makers had been promising an end to child slavery, 2.1 million West African children still do the back-breaking work of harvesting cocoa, putting their health in jeopardy and missing out an education.

So what’s your best bet for a sweet fix? Conscious Chocolate (which is handmade from ethically sourced organic ingredients and comes wrapped in biodegradable and compostable packaging) is available at Mawasim Abu Dhabi (in store and online). And Greenheart Organic in Dubai stocks Green & Black’s bars which contain only ethically sourced cocoa. Cocoa for Green & Black’s Pure Dark and Pure Milk Chocolates are sourced through ‘Cocoa Life’, a verified third-party sustainability program which invests in inspiring and enabling a new generation of cocoa farmers to gain skills that improve their livelihood, strengthen communities, and empower women.


Worldwide, we consume about 10 million tons of coffee per year, drinking an average of three cups a day per person (the size of a modest swimming pool). Many companies choose to produce their beans in countries that under-regulate the use of pesticides and chemicals on crops, allowing them to produce more, faster and cheaper.

A staggering 2.5 million acres of Central American forest have been destroyed to make way for coffee farms. WWF recently pointed out that 37 of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates globally are coffee producers.

cruel diet, fair-trade coffee, coffee beans

Choose Fairtrade coffee to help the communities of coffee growers – you don’t want to be on the cruel diet. Image: Shutterstock

Fair-trade options are increasingly available (claiming 27 percent of the overall coffee market internationally) but coffee is still a notoriously unjust commodity. More than 100 million people grow coffee around the world, but receive an average of only 10 percent of the selling price – making it hugely profitable for a few big companies and leaving those who produce it under extreme financial pressure, competition and financial vulnerability, which in turn encourages the use of pesticides and exploitative labour practises to keep costs low.

Thankfully, an increasing number of companies are setting a more ethical standard. Raw Coffee has been sourcing and roasting coffee in the UAE since 2007. All beans are organically certified. They explain: ‘It’s really important to us that our beans are ethically sourced and the farmers and their families growing our coffee are treated fairly and can eke out a sustainable living.’

They deliver freshly roasted coffee across the UAE from their online store

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