When navigating the grocery store, likely the last thing on your mind is the sustainability of the foods and goods you are purchasing. Although this is not on the minds of the average consumer, perhaps it should be. In general, there are many foods that are just more sustainable than others from both a production standpoint, as well as from an afterlife perspective. This blog post will explore some of the most sustainable food sources and provide you with the information required to navigate the grocery store with the environment in mind.
From a production standpoint, the sustainability of a food depends on a variety of factors. These factors are influenced from every point of the production process, including growing to packaging to distribution. From a growing perspective, some foods are just naturally more resource intensive than others, including water use and maintenance. Once the crops are grown, there are two different destination streams. For some types of crops, their distribution goes directly to the grocery stores for consumers to purchase. For others, their destination is a production facility that turns those crops into other edible products (think cereal, jam, or just about any packaged food good). Once these food crops are combined to create new food products, they are often packaged (on-site at the facility or perhaps off-site) and then distributed to their grocery store shelf destination. The more steps that a food product goes through to reach your cupboard or plate, the more environmentally intensive it is. In general, the more destinations a product goes to, the more transportation emissions that are associated with the product (distance travelled also needs to be taken into consideration). In addition to transportation emissions, the packaging stage of said products needs to be taken into consideration as well, as not only does it add to the amount of natural resources used for that product, but also contributes to the afterlife disposal of that food product.
The afterlife of a product is something that should be taken into consideration when discussing the sustainability of differing food products. As mentioned just above, lots of factors can impact the sustainability of food. From an afterlife perspective, questions regarding compostability and package recyclability are important. For example, how compostable is that food? How long does it take to break down in a landfill/composting facility/anaerobic digester? Is the packaging garbage or recyclable? All valid questions when assessing the afterlife of food products. The more easily compostable or recyclable any product is, the more environmentally friendly it is.
So all this considered, what are some of the most sustainable foods? Here is a quick top 10 list of some of the most sustainable foods.
Packed with protein, fibre and magnesium, beans offer a variety of nutrients that are essential to a healthy diet without intensely impacting the environment. Now, being mindful of how you consume these foods is essential to the sustainability of them. Canned beans are not as environmentally sustainable as their dried counterparts, but still make an easy sustainable choice. Even with packaging, aluminum cans are one of the most highly recyclable materials, making even canned varieties more sustainable than some other food choices.
2. Leafy Greens
Although there is no argument that leafy greens are some of the healthiest foods to consume, they are also some of the most sustainable. Requiring little water resources to grow, they are some of the most easily cultivated and harvested produce. They require little maintenance and have a continuous growing period. They also can grow in almost any climate region at some point (meaning you are more likely to find this from a local source than other produce varieties). They are also often offered in bulk at your local grocery store, requiring no packaging either.
Although many do not think that seafood and sustainability go together, in the case of mussels, they do! Mussels are generally farmed in a sustainable manner, requiring little resources for their health benefits. Packed with protein and essential nutrients, mussels are a great alternative for seafood lovers (as all other seafood can no longer be harvested sustainably) who want to enjoy food with the environment in mind.
Rice is one of the most consumed foods globally, and is a staple food source in many parts of the world. Rice is one of the easiest grains to grow, requiring little water, and is easy to cultivate, cook and store for extended periods of time. Not only is it one of the most sustainable grains, it is also hearty, healthy, and packed with carbohydrates to sustain energy.
5. Organic produce of all varieties
Although not always as sustainable as their local counterparts, for the most part you’ll find that organic fruits and veggies are more sustainable than conventional produce. This is because they do have the impacts of pesticides and are generally more drought resistant. The only time you need to consider the impact of organic produce is when it is coming from far distances. If there is a local alternative available, that fruit or veggie is technically more sustainable because it experiences less transportation. This is where making decisions at the grocery store gets tricky, but as a general rule of thumb organic is best, unless there is a local alternative. If its organic and local, you’ve hit the sustainability jackpot!
Who would have thought of pomegranates being on a sustainable food list? However, they are one of the most drought resistant fruits, yielding large quantities of fruit for little natural resources.
Although some love them and others hate them, olives are a sustainable produce source. They also have a long shelf life, making them a good sustainable choice to be consumed all year long. Often in glass containers or aluminum cans when pickled, both of these packaging items are highly recyclable (making even the packaged varieties somewhat sustainable!).
Similar to leafy greens, tomatoes can grow in relatively any climate, making them a great sustainable produce choice. Many people take it upon themselves to grow their own tomatoes during the summer season, requiring little maintenance and all the delicious rewards.
A staple for many dinners, potatoes are surprisingly water efficient crops (only consuming approximately 50 gallons per pound). As an added bonus, potatoes actually also naturally produce their own pesticides and fungicides, making them a consistent harvest. Additionally, potatoes can be grown in a variety of places, and can be stored for extensive periods of time, reducing food waste.
Surprisingly, peanuts are a sustainable protein source that offer a low-carbon footprint. However, not all nuts are created equally, as almonds are very water intensive where their peanut cousins are not. Given this, stick to peanuts if you can in comparison to other nuts. If you would like to deviate from peanuts, try walnuts or cashews as well. Keep in mind that processed peanuts (like butters or bars) are not sustainable just because they are made of peanuts.
How to Eat Sustainability
Seemingly, you’ll notice that a lot of sustainable food choices listed above do not have any packaging or if they do, they are packaging that can be easily recycled (glass jars/aluminum cans). Given this, it is clear that foods without packaging are the most sustainable choices, but not always easy to find at the store or cook.
All diets need variety and you cannot reasonably live your life avoiding foods that are not on this list. Trying to make good choices at the grocery store can be nerve wrecking, but it is small changes that can slowly impact your shopping habits. Given this, start small. Instead of buying packaged leafy greens, try to buy bulk and see if that works for you and your family. Another small but mighty initiative is to try to shop seasonally.
Sustainable local food is the best option for any household, as these foods experience the lowest transportation, have reduced packaging and help the local economy. However, this is not always an option at all times of the year. Instead of depriving yourself, just enjoy all foods in moderation and make sustainable choices, where you can.