The 8 Best Foods for the Environment—and the 8 Worst

We make hundreds of food choices a week, for as many reasons: accessibility, taste, affordability, novelty, health benefits—and those are just a few. So don’t consider this a list of foods that you should eat or shouldn’t; It’s just additional information to help you make those choices.

Consider the graph below. You might be surprised to see that some of your favorite foods have the most detrimental effects on the environment. It doesn’t mean that you need to swear off avocados or chocolate altogether (not a chance!), but the knowledge will help inform your food choices.

There is one very clear takeaway, though: Food that is sustainable is also incredibly nutritious. Your own health and the health of the planet go hand-in-hand.

Julia Bohan

This chart shows the foods that rank highest and lowest in terms of greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain, according to research compiled by Our World in Data. The rankings take into consideration land use, emissions at the farm, animal feed, processing emissions for converting the items into sellable products, transportation, and food miles. It also factors in the energy needed at retail establishments (such as refrigerators) and emissions from the production of each product’s packaging materials.

Least Sustainable Foods to Eat Less

Red Meat: Beef and Lamb

Unsurprisingly, red meats (particularly beef, with lamb a close-ish second) rank at the top of the list when it comes to the highest carbon footprint and detrimental effects on the environment. Producing a kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases and requires over 900 gallons of water. In addition to its harmful effects on climate change, eating two servings of red meat per week has been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease by 3 to 7 percent.

Better choice: Swap beef for bison meat.

Fish

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the greatest threat to marine life worldwide is overfishing—that is, commercial fishermen deplete the stock of fish faster than they can be replaced. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that the number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in the past 50 years. Overfishing can affect an ocean’s entire ecosystem: The creatures who once relied on that overharvested fish for food now have less to eat. Meanwhile, the species that were once eaten by the harvested fish grow overpopulated, which can cause the spread of infectious disease. When there are fewer fish to nibble algae from the coral, the reefs begin to degrade, and so on.

It’s possible to make sustainable seafood choices, but it isn’t necessarily just a matter of choosing wild-caught over farmed, which both have their pros and cons. Health-wise, wild-caught fish may have a slight edge: Since they eat a natural diet, they tend to be lower in saturated fat, and they’re not exposed to the chemicals involved with the commercial farming process. Unfortunately, however, any fish can contain mercury because they’re all affected by industrial pollution. The larger the fish, the higher the potential mercury content.

Better choices: Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guide to Seafood, which includes a list of “best bets” that are high in omega-3s, low in mercury, and come from sustainable sources. Also, their Seafood Calculator can give you a customized list of recommendations based on your age, health conditions, and more.

Cheese

Cubed Cheese.
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If you’re a cheese lover, you may be disappointed to hear that the production of cheese ranks just below red meat as one of the worst foods for the environment. Cheese relies heavily on dairy cows that release large amounts of methane, which has a global-warming impact that is 25 times higher than carbon dioxide.

In terms of health, researchers from Harvard have found that dairy fat is not necessarily associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease when compared with the same amount of calories from carbohydrates. However, they also found that replacing about 5 percent of your daily calories from dairy fat with a similar amount of unsaturated fat from vegetables or vegetable oil was linked to a 24 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Overall, the results are consistent with current dietary recommendations to consume mostly unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats,” says Frank B. Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

Better choices: Feta, chèvre, brie, Camembert, and mozzarella have smaller environmental footprints than other cheeses.

Chocolate

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Though chocolate can seemingly bring nothing but joy, the environmental impact might make you think twice about indulging. Research from the World Economic Forum shows that the “commercial chocolate industry is shrinking rainforests, emitting significant levels of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, and contributing to climate change.”

In addition to the deforestation caused by cultivating cacao beans, most chocolate bars are made with two other eco-unfriendly culprits: sugar and milk, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found that sugar cultivation contributes to diminished soil degradation and quantity, while the dairy industry requires 144 gallons of water to produce only one gallon of milk.

On the bright side, dark chocolate has actually been shown to offer a few notable health benefits—it’s rich in plant chemicals called flavanols, which may help to protect the heart and reduce your risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Better choice: Opt for fair-trade dark chocolate.

Produce Grown Internationally

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Fresh produce is about as healthy as it gets. According to the American Heart Association, “all fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that may help prevent heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses.”

That said, fresh produce isn’t always so healthy for the planet. Many of your favorite fruits and veggies traveled long distances to get to your local grocery store. Commonly consumed crops like avocados, bananas, and grapes are typically grown, harvested, and imported outside the United States.

When purchasing these products, you may have noticed your avocados labeled with “Made in Mexico” stickers or that your bananas came from Latin American countries such as Panama, Costa Rica, or Guatemala. This is concerning because internationally grown produce contributes significantly more food miles—and therefore gas emissions—when compared to locally grown crops. For one, these perishable items are typically air-freighted by airplane. While great for maintaining freshness, this is problematic in regards to global warming.

Better choice: Go for in-season produce that’s farmed locally..

Coffee

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When it comes to the environment, coffee is actually quite the buzzkill. Research shows that coffee production emits about 15 kilograms of CO2-equivalents per kilogram of product. These emissions are caused by farming, packaging, and effects on the land. Still, our nation’s demand for coffee only continues to grow (seven in 10 Americans consume coffee daily), and the impacts on the environment have followed suit.

In terms of health, research has shown that coffee is quite good for you. “The consumption of caffeinated coffee does not increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancers,” says a review from The New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, it states that the consumption of three to five standard cups of coffee daily has been consistently associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease. The review does caution, however, that a person’s metabolism and sensitivity to caffeine varies, and “current evidence does not warrant recommending caffeine or coffee intake for disease prevention.”

Better choice: Opt for fair trade coffee.

Palm Oil

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You may not have a bottle of palm oil in your pantry, but that doesn’t mean you’re not consuming it. Palm oil is found in more than half of all packaged products Americans consume—not only food (ice cream, baked goods, non-dairy creamer, frozen pizza, and many more) but beauty and cleaning products. If a product contains palm oil, you may not see it on the label. Instead it may be hiding in the ingredients list under names you don’t recognize, including palmitate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and more. Why is it so ubiquitous? Compared to other vegetable oils, it yields a bigger crop, and it’s less expensive to produce.

The problem is that large areas of tropical forest are being cleared to make way for palm plantations, destroying wildlife habitats, including those of some rare and endangered species. Burning forests also emit smoke and carbon dioxide, which are harmful for both the planet and its people. The plantations also contribute to soil and water pollution. According to the World Wildlife Fund, a palm oil mill produces 2.5 metric tons of effluent, or liquid waste, for every metric ton of oil it produces.

Although palm oil is touted as a healthier alternative to shortening or butter because it contains no trans fats, it still contains saturated fat, which can raise our levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and triglycerides, putting us at an increased risk of heart disease.

Better choice: Whenever possible, opt for products with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label, which contain Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, produced in accordance with standards for sustainable practices along the supply chain.

Cane Sugar

About 80 percent of the world’s sugar is made from cane sugar, harvested from the bamboo-like sugarcane plant. That includes brown sugar, made from sugar cane molasses, and some white granulated sugar, which can be made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Harvesting sugarcane takes a major toll on the environment: It’s another contributor to global deforestation (the World Wildlife Fund estimates that growers will need to cultivate 50 percent more land by 2050 to accommodate demnads). Silt, fertilizers, and other byproducts pollute freshwater ecosystems. And the sugar cane plant requires a lot of water—an estimated 9 gallons for every teaspoon.

Better choice: Look for fair-trade sugar or products certified by Bonsucro, a global organization focused on sustainable sugarcane production.

Most Sustainable Foods to Eat More

Algae

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According to a report released by the WWF called “The Future 50 Foods,” algae is a nutrient-rich plant that is responsible for half of all oxygen production on earth, and all aquatic ecosystems rely on it. The marine plant contains essential fatty acids, is rich in vitamin C and iodine, full of antioxidants, and packed with protein. The WWF refers to edible seaweed as a “game changer” for its ability to grow in vast areas of the ocean and availability to harvest throughout the year. Plus it requires no pesticides or fertilizers.

Pulses and Beans

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The WWF praises beans and other pulses—including lentils, peas, and chickpeas—for their ability to convert nitrogen from the air and “fix” it into a form that can be readily used by plants. Pulses also rely heavily on “green water,” which refers to water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired, or incorporated by plants.

Additionally, beans offer healthy nutrients for a daily diet and are a source of fiber, protein, and B vitamins. A ½ cup of cooked beans provides about 7 grams of protein, which would equate to 1 ounce of meat.

Leafy Greens

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Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and arugula boast a medley of health benefits and are rich in healthful vitamins like A, C, E, and K. According to the USDA, they aid in “protecting bones from osteoporosis and helping to prevent against inflammatory diseases,” and have “antioxidants, [which are] proven to decrease the risk of heart disease.”

Adding a handful of greens can help transform any recipe into a delicious and nutritious meal for the day. Aside from the benefits for humans, leafy greens are considered one of the top eco-friendly and sustainable foods on the market. Requiring minimal resources to produce large quantities, they are just as good for the environment as they are for you.

Mushrooms

Mix of Mushrooms.
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According to the WWF, “mushrooms can grow where many other foods would not, including on by-products recycled from other crops.” Additionally, a 2017 report by the Mushroom Council assessed the environmental impacts of growing mushrooms over two years and found that the production of a pound of mushrooms requires far less water and energy than most other agricultural crops, with an extremely low CO2 emissions rate to boot.

One pound of button mushrooms requires just 2 gallons of water to produce, which is far less than the average of 50 gallons of water per pound demanded by other fresh produce items. With more than 2,000 edible varieties, great flavor, and rich nutritional value like protein and fiber, mushrooms add flavor and substance to every meal without heavily impacting the environment.

Cereals and Grains

Cereal grains historically made up the majority of concentrate horse feeds.

An integral component of the human diet for centuries, cereals and grains have been shown to offer many benefits and health-promoting components, such as dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants like polyphenols and phytosterols. Cereals and grains (such as wheat and rye) rank low on greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only 1.4 kilograms of CO2-equivalents per kilogram of product.

Generally speaking, plant-based products emit 10 to 50 times fewer emissions compared to animal-based products. Additionally, cereal grains like wheat require just 138 gallons of water per pound, which is about 7 percent of the water needed to produce the equivalent quantity of beef.

Nuts

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Nuts require minimal processing, so they have a relatively low carbon footprint compared to animal-based sources of protein. Producing 100 grams of beef results in a whopping 49.89 kg of CO2-equivalents, while producing 100 grams of nuts results in only 0.26 kg. Some nuts are more planet-friendly than others, because greenhouse gas emissions are only part of the picture. Nuts use a lot of water, especially almonds: According to one 2019 study, it takes 3.2 gallons of water to produce a single one. Opt for walnuts instead, which use relatively less water but can also benefit the environment by pulling carbon into the soil. Chestnuts, peanuts, and hazelnuts also have a lower water footprint, according to the HEALabel Ethical Consumer Guide.

There are plenty of healthy reasons to go nuts: They’re a great source of unsaturated fats, fiber, and the amino acid L-arginine, which may lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Root Vegetables

Carrots at Market.
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They’re delicious, they’re versatile, they keep for a long time in your pantry—and they’re environmental superstars. In a Journal of Cleaner Production review of greenhouse gas emissions for 168 kinds of fresh produce, onions, carrots, and potatoes are three of the top five. They’re also high in fiber, low in calories, and packed with antioxidants.

Sprouts

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Sprouts are a farmer’s true friend: They require no pesticides, reduce soil erosion, and serve up pollen for bees and insects. They’ll nourish you too, with Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and potassium, as well as fiber and antioxidants.

Add them to sandwiches, salads, or anything else that could use a dose of fresh, delicious green crunchiness. You may just be inspired to try growing your own, which is an easy project: Start this afternoon and you could be eating your home-grown crop in just five or six days.

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