As consumers, it's our responsibility to educate ourselves about the environmental footprint of our meals. While we may be decades away from a completely sustainable food chain, even the smallest choices we make at the grocery play a part.
Although it may not be something we consciously think about, what we put on our plates can be actually be causing harm to the planet. In fact, some foods are directly tied to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and inhumane labor practices.
With that in mind, here are some of the best foods with the least environmental impact to help you start making more environmentally decisions today.
This vegan favorite is an affordable, versatile, and highly nutritious ingredient—boasting 9 grams of protein per one-half cup. The best part is that getting lentils on to your plate involves very low levels of greenhouse gasses. Even during production and the post-farming process, lentil production still produces 40 times less carbon than meat protein sources. Lentils are also super simple to prepare; simply boil and they're ready to eat. You can use them as an ingredient in salads, as a substitute for rice, or as the base of a delicious Indian daal.
Potatoes are popular for their wide range of uses and cooking possibilities. Whether you'd like it fried, boiled, or roasted, you'll never run out of recipes with this powerhouse in your pantry. Beyond all those perks, the biggest benefit is that potatoes are water-efficient crops, only consuming about 50 gallons per pound. Moreover, they produce natural pesticides, thereby eliminating the need for chemicals. Because potatoes can be stored for months without going bad, you'll also worry less about food wastage.
Nuts are another great low-carbon protein source, especially when compared to other protein sources like meat. Producing one kilogram of nuts creates 2.3 kilograms of CO2, while the same amount of beef creates a whopping 27 kilograms. Take note, however, that not all nuts are good for the planet. Almonds, for instance, demand massive amounts of water to produce so that's something you'll want to avoid.
Amaranth, which translates to "everlasting" in Greek, is one of the oldest grains around. It was even an essential food source for ancient South American and Mexican civilizations. This resilient plant does not need much water to grow, and it can thrive in almost any soil condition. Amaranth is a great grain substitute when trying to eat gluten-free. Plus, it's surprisingly easy to prepare. Rice cookers that cook your favorite grains can be used to make amaranth too. Just use 1 part amaranth, and 2 parts water, and you'll have a hearty bowl in no time.
When harvested locally, tomatoes have a low carbon footprint. What's more is that tomatoes—which are interestingly both fruits and vegetables—have a much more distinct, refreshing taste when homegrown. That's enough reason to support local agriculture! This vine is also quite simple to grow, and anyone can enjoy their own tomatoes from the comfort of their backyard.
Of course, this list only scratches the surface of sustainable dining. At the end of the day, eating well doesn't have to come at the price of the planet. With so many alternatives—and a wealth of information at your fingertips, too—there's no excuse not to make more responsible consumer choices.
Jennifer Birch is a freelance writer who aspires to live a zero-waste lifestyle. She is currently residing in Southern California, and enjoys indoor gardening in her spare time.