Take a second to think about your last search for eco friendly foods in your neighborhood store. Was it easy? Was it free of confusion? Let’s be honest: every aisle is packed with an overabundance of choices. On top of that, you’ve got unclear packaging descriptions, incomplete nutritional information and some puzzling points of origin. (Do those apples really need to come from New Zealand?) Unfortunately, filling a shopping cart can be daunting for anyone who is serious about a sustainable lifestyle.
Don’t despair, though, eco-aware shoppers: a few guidelines can help you map out the path to successful organic living. After we go over the ground rules of green shopping, we’ll have the basics needed to figure out why some eco friendly foods are better than others.
General Tips on Shopping for Eco Friendly Foods
- Whenever possible, opt for fewer processed foods. The most eco friendly foods are the things that come out of the ground or fall from a tree.
- Organic foods tend to be more Earth-friendly than the “standard” alternatives because they’re certified free of synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering and most conventional pesticides.
- The essence of the local food movement is buying food that was grown near you. Fresh produce has been found to travel an average of 1500 miles before it gets to your crisper, so reducing that distance can make a dramatic dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
- Buying seasonal fruit and vegetables can also help to minimize your ecological footprint. If you can get apples from local farms in the fall, that’s when you should buy your Braeburns, even if they grow in the spring on the other side of the globe.
- Because animal-based foods require extra energy input (in the form of feed) and create extra waste products (greenhouse emissions and manure), reducing the amount of meat and dairy in your diet is one of the most effective eco friendly strategies at your disposal.
These tips are all especially helpful if you can fill your cart with seasonal, pesticide-free vegetables from a nearby farm, but what do you do when you have to choose between organic carrots from a few states over and a local but conventionally grown carrot? One strategy for simplifying things: focus on eco friendly foods that are intrinsically more sustainable than your garden-variety raspberry or tomato.
The 10 Most Eco Friendly Foods
1. Garden peas. Not many foods give back more to the environment than they take. Peas, though, can be thought of as a sort of self-fertilizer, because they basically make their own nitrogen. This means that they require much less synthetic fertilizer. If harvested in a sustainable fashion, pea plants will even help to enrich the soil with all that extra nitrogen, making them a true environmental hero in the vegetable world.
2. Beans. Although cutting back on animal products can be good for the environment, the result can often be much lower levels of protein in the diet. Finding vegetable protein sources is an important step in mapping out a sustainable lifestyle, and beans more than fit the bill. Dried beans also have a very long shelf life, which means less food waste and better organic living.
3. Broccoli. Why spray your crops with environmentally destructive pesticides when the plants can defend themselves? Like other members of the cabbage family, broccoli produces compounds related to a class of industrial pesticides. Don’t worry, though: broccoli’s pest defenses are 100% natural. This means farmers can grow broccoli without the need for excess chemicals. Here’s a bonus: those same compounds in broccoli that fight off bugs are also thought to keep certain human cancers at bay.
4. Onions. When it comes to eco friendly produce, one good rule of thumb is to find foods with a more extreme flavor profile. The compounds that make a vegetable unusually bitter or piquant are probably there for defensive purposes. An onion’s especially strong odor comes from an abundance of chemicals containing sulfur. (Sulfur is best known for putting the stink in rotten eggs.) Too much sulfur might make you cry when you’re cooking dinner, but you should be all smiles in the grocery aisles: onions are less inclined to suffer from pests because bugs like sulfur even less than we do.
5. Potatoes. If you’re looking for an all-around eco winner, potatoes might be your best bet. Potatoes require only a moderate amount of water and fertilizer. Pest control comes naturally to potatoes, as they produce compounds that ward off insects and disease – and the crop yield for potatoes is also relatively high. If you’re a potato lover, you’re probably helping to prevent food waste too, because potatoes can last in the pantry for a while before they start going bad. All told, that baked potato dinner will be a much lower burden on the environment than most alternatives.
6. Oranges. Water consumption is key in calculating the environmental friendliness of a crop. Too much water means too much energy expended to keep plants healthy. A pound of oranges requires approximately 55 gallons of water. That bumps up to 102 gallons for bananas, 142 gallons for peaches and 190 gallons for mangos. Next to real water-hogs like rice (403 gallons), olives (522 gallons) and the beans used to make chocolate (2847 gallons, and that’s not a typo), an orange is a straight-up ecological bargain.
7. Apples. Conservation of water also works in favor of the apple. At 83 gallons of water per pound of fruit, your average apple’s thirst is almost as moderate as your average orange’s. Plus, apples are pretty low-key when it comes to using fertilizer. The bad news? Apples require careful maintenance for pest control. If you can find local (and seasonal) organic apples, though, you’ll be way ahead in the sustainable lifestyle standings.
8. Pears. The nutrient and water requirements for pear cultivation are similar to the growing needs for apples. That’s a pretty good start. Unlike apples, though, pears reach optimal ripeness after being picked, when they’re placed into storage. As a result, speedy and inefficient transportation isn’t necessary, and of course saving energy is what eco friendly foods are all about. If you’re interested in the local food movement, pears are a good choice. They’re a popular crop on smaller, more locally conscious farms.
9. Soft cheeses. Sure, eliminating dairy products from the menu is a fantastic way to maximize the sustainable nature of your diet, but that’s cold comfort to those of us who just can’t give up on cheese. The good news is that people are trying to reduce the environmental impact of the dairy industry – but if you can’t wait till 2020, you can always opt for cheese that causes less ecological strain. Cheeses from cows and goats are generally better than sheep’s milk cheese, and softer or less-processed cheeses require less energy to make.
10. Small fishes. Okay, meat-eaters, here’s how you can get off the hook. The tinier fishes, like anchovies and Pacific sardines, are relatively low on the food chain, and thinking small keeps things sustainable. There are numerous seafood buying guides, so check regularly to figure out where the greenest options are coming from. If you’re more of a land-based omnivore, stick to chicken, because environmentally harmful emissions are associated with beef (and, to a lesser extent, pork). Key words to focus on when searching for ethical meats are “organic,” “humane” and “grass-fed.”
A Simple Step Towards Sustainability
No matter which items go in your cart, one sure-fire method of becoming an environmental superstar is to reduce the amount of food you throw out. Whether you buy conventional, organic, grass-fed or processed foods, they all require energy to produce, care for and transport. Astonishingly, 40 percent of the food produced in America ends up in the trash bin.
The easiest step on the road to sustainable living? Buying only what you need, keeping all of your produce fresher for longer with food-saving technology like the BerryBreeze™ Fridge Freshener, and making sure those leftovers in the back of your refrigerator don’t get out of control.
Did we miss a sustainable lifestyle tip? Do you have some favorite eco friendly foods that we left off of our list? Please comment below!