We’ve all heard the term “sustainable food” thrown around at one point or another. But do you know what it actually means to eat sustainably?
Although the concept of sustainability dates back several centuries, it has recently entered the limelight as social movements and organizations like Farm-to-Table and Slow Food USA continue to gain traction. This popular eating pattern not only benefits overall health, but it can also have a long-lasting impact on local communities, farm workers, animals, and the planet.
So what exactly is sustainable food? And how can you be sure that you’re practicing a sustainable style of eating? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about sustainable food and how you can effectively reduce your environmental footprint.
What Is Sustainability?
A quick internet search reveals tons of different definitions for what exactly the term “sustainability” means. To put it simply, however, sustainable eating puts the focus on foods that are produced in a way that is beneficial for the environment, supports local communities and is humane to farmers, workers, and animals alike.
Sustainable food production is incredibly important, not just for the sake of our planet, but also for our health and future as well. Opting for some of the most sustainable foods whenever possible can help minimize greenhouse gas emissions, decrease food waste, and reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, additives, and preservatives that are abundant throughout the food supply.
Selecting sustainable ingredients whenever possible requires little effort but can be incredibly beneficial. Let’s look at some of the top sustainable foods that are good for both health and the environment.
Top 7 Sustainable Foods
There are plenty of options for the most environmentally-friendly meats, veggies, and other ingredients that can help promote a sustainable style of eating. Here are some of the top sustainable food products that you may want to consider adding to your next shopping list:
As one of the most sustainable protein sources available, adding beans to your diet can have a huge impact on the environment. According to a 2017 study published in Climatic Change, swapping beans in for beef could potentially help achieve up to 74% of the reductions needed to meet the goals for the greenhouse gas emission targets in the United States by 2020. Not only that, but it could also free up 42% of cropland in the United States as well (1).
Besides supplying a hearty dose of protein, beans are also a great source of fiber as well as manganese, selenium, zinc, and copper (2). Try centering one or two meals around beans each week for a nutritious, meatless meal. Alternatively, try using them in recipes like black bean burgers, dips, and salads to bump up your protein intake.
In addition to being a potent powerhouse of nutrition, broccoli has also secured a spot on the list of top sustainable food ingredients available. Broccoli plants are especially effective at producing their own natural pesticides, which help ward off pests without the need for harmful chemicals and synthetic products.
Broccoli is low in calories but packed with a wide array of essential nutrients. In particular, broccoli is high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese, along with a whole host of important antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds (3). Steamed, sautéed, or roasted broccoli are all easy and delicious options for a quick dinner side dish. Broccoli also makes a great addition to stir-fries or wholesome and hearty veggie bowls.
Sardines and other small species of fish, such as anchovies, are all excellent choices when it comes to sustainability. They’re low on the food chain, meaning they don’t consume other fish themselves and can be caught with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. They’re also less likely to accumulate harmful toxins like mercury and reproduce very quickly, making them an ideal sustainable food option.
Sardines are versatile, easy to prepare, and loaded with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12 (4). They can be grilled or baked and drizzled with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, and your choice of herbs and seasonings. Be sure to select wild-caught Pacific sardines whenever possible to avoid varieties that may be overfished or in danger.
This flavorful fruit is a great addition to a sustainable style of eating because, unlike many other fruits, it tends to ripen after picking. This eliminates the need to transport it quickly, cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel usage. Pears are also often available fresh from farmers’ markets, which can be a great way to support your local community.
Pears are rich in dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and copper (5). Plus, they’re sweet and crunchy, making them one of the top flavorful and deliciously sustainable snacks that can be enjoyed with little to no prep required. You can also add pears to recipes like smoothies, frittatas, and fruit leathers to take advantage of the many nutrients that they have to offer.
This type of wild game is often dubbed the most sustainable meat option on the market. Compared to other common types of meat sources such as cattle, bison cause less erosion damage and trampling, which significantly cuts down on their potential environmental impact. Some also claim that they require fewer resources and tend to forage in drier, rougher grasses than cattle and other livestock.
Bison are also raised more humanely and allowed to roam freely for most of their lives. Although livestock production does require the use of more resources than plant-based foods, selecting bison instead of beef or chicken is a simple way to support ethical farming practices rather than factory farms.
Each serving of bison provides a good amount of selenium, vitamin B12, zinc, and niacin (6). Although it may require you to search a bit beyond your local supermarket, bison is widely available in many grocery stores, butcher shops, and health stores. It works especially well as a sustainable beef alternative in any recipes that call for red meat and can be marinated, grilled, stir-fried, or seared on the skillet.
Potatoes are a staple ingredient for a well-rounded, sustainable style of eating. Like broccoli and many other veggies, they have a built-in pest control system that produces natural pesticides and fungicides and reduces the need for harmful chemicals and other synthetic compounds. They also require a fraction of the water, fertilizer, and resources of other plants for growth and can be stored in the pantry or fridge for long periods of time without spoiling.
Potatoes are brimming with micronutrients like potassium, vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin B6 (7). They’re also a very versatile ingredient and can be boiled, grilled, sautéed, baked, or roasted and incorporated into recipes like turmeric mashed potatoes, veggie omelets, tossed salads, or potato wedges for a nutritious and sustainable side dish to your main meal.
7. Garden Peas
Peas stand out as one of the absolute best sustainable foods on the market as well as a nutritious addition to a healthy, balanced diet. This is because they produce their own nitrogen naturally, which eliminates the need for fertilizer and boosts the nutrient content of the soil, even after being harvested. Additionally, peas are also easy to grow in most weather conditions, which can cut back on water waste to conserve resources.
Peas are a great source of protein as well as fiber, vitamin K, manganese, folate, and thiamin (8). Fresh peas are sweet, tender, and delicious, but they can also be gently cooked and used in soups, pasta dishes, and pesto sauce as well.
Tips for Finding Sustainable Food
In addition to adding a few of the top sustainable food options into your diet, there are plenty of other ways that you can make sure you’re eating sustainably. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you get started:
- Cook at home: Not only is it better for your waistline and your health but preparing your own meals at home also puts you in control of the ingredients you’re using to ensure that you’re eating sustainably.
- Purchase from sustainable food companies and local growers: Buying locally is a key component of sustainable eating, and it’s one of the ways that you can make the biggest impact. Supporting local, sustainable in your community also helps cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation and importing products.
- Eat seasonally: Basing your diet around which foods are in season is a great strategy to support sustainability. Seasonal produce also tends to retain more nutrients, taste better, and have less “food mileage” to reduce your environmental footprint.
- Choose certified fair trade products: Fair trade is a global movement that prioritizes the ethical treatment of workers to protect and empower local communities. Companies that become certified have undergone rigorous audits and assessments to guarantee that they are compliant with the strict standards set out by the organization.
- Start a garden: In addition to purchasing your food from responsible, environmentally-conscious companies, you can also try growing your own food at home as well. Starting a garden is a great way to add more fresh produce to your kitchen while also positively impacting the environment and supporting sustainable agriculture.
Many of us don’t take sustainability into account when considering what a healthy diet should look like. However, choosing sustainable foods is important to the health of our bodies, our communities, and the world around us. Picking sustainable food options and making a few minor modifications to your shopping habits can ensure that you’re eating ethically and responsibly to preserve the health of the planet for generations to come.
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