4 Sustainable Foods to Green Your Cooking

By replacing high emission ingredients with these four sustainable foods, you can promote sustainability for your kitchen and the planet.
A taco filled with mushrooms, avocado, red onion, and cilantro.
Source: shutterstock

Sustainable foods are a great way to make an impact in your daily life—in your own way. Finding your true green is all about the intentional choices you make in your unique sustainability journey. What you bring into the kitchen is no exception—in fact, it is a powerful way to lower your household’s carbon footprint.

“Carbon emissions” might make you think of vehicles or fossil fuels, but the problem doesn’t end there. A 2021 study from the European Commission and the UN Food and Agriculture Programme shows that 34% of human-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are caused by food systems, from production all the way to packaging and food waste at home.

Fortunately, low-emission foods aren’t hidden away; there may be options already in your kitchen to reduce your carbon footprint without giving up your favorite dishes. We compared emissions levels of various ingredients using data from a 2018 study from Oxford and LCA Research Group —the largest food impact analysis to date and ethical consumer guide HEALabel. Because these numbers have been converted from kilograms to pounds, some data points have been rounded.

Instead of Ground Beef, Try Pecans

Beef has the highest carbon footprint of any food item, contributing greatly to greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural industry, with 2.2 pounds (lbs) of beef generating 218 lbs of emissions. Pecans sit at the other end of the spectrum, with a ratio of 2.2 lbs of pecans for 3.5 lbs of emissions, enabling a possible reduction in emissions that is almost unbelievable.

Try it in Tacos: With pecans substituting for beef, nothing can get in the way of your Taco Tuesday plans. By soaking the nuts and grinding them in a food processor, you can give pecans a comparable texture to beef—and they already have high-protein. With spices and sauces, pecans become a canvas for exciting flavor combinations. If pecans aren’t available to you, walnuts are another great option with just 1.7 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs.

Instead of Rice, Try Lentils

Rice production results in about 10 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs of rice. Rice production is so abundant that it contributes to 1.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Rice cultivation often involves crop clearing, the practice of either burning or flooding of fields that result in significant carbon and methane emissions. In comparison, lentils only produce 2 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs, plus they promote soil health and contain high fiber and protein.

Use a Lentil Base: Replace the rice in nearly any dish with all or part lentils to reduce your carbon footprint with a meal. Lentils lend themselves well to meal-prepping and pair well with other low-emissions ingredients like root vegetables.

Instead of Bacon, Try Eggplant

“Bacon makes everything better,” except when it’s racking up 27 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs of pork. Eggplant, however, generates a surprisingly low 1.1 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs and provides a healthy dose of fiber and antioxidants, too.

Plant-based Bacon: Eggplant bacon is a unique and versatile way to swap out your breakfast sides or afternoon BLT. Use soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and a dash of liquid smoke before crisping eggplant in the oven, air fryer, or pan. Homemade eggplant bacon is also a great chance to choose whole ingredients over processed alternatives like prepackaged plant-based bacon.

Instead of Cheese Sauce, Try Nutritional Yeast

Cheese is notoriously one of the hardest food items to eliminate from day-to-day cooking—even for those who strive to be fully plant-based. Cheddar cheese comes with a whopping 46 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs of the good stuff. Fortunately, a delightfully cheesy sauce doesn’t have to stay in the past. With 7 lbs of emissions per 2.2 lbs, nutritional yeast, a deactivated yeast in a flaky format, is a great low-emissions swap that provides both vitamins and protein and serves as a base to create all kinds of cheese substitutes. Because nutritional yeast is a complete protein high in vitamins and minerals, it is also a great choice for vegans who want to ensure they are getting their essential nutrients. Plant-based cheese can be found in grocery stores, too, which have significantly lower emissions than the production of dairy-based cheese.

Make it Saucy: With coconut milk, flavorings like onion and garlic powder, and turmeric for color, nutritional yeast can create a delicious, plant-based cheese sauce perfect for queso, mac and cheese, and countless other dishes.

Making occasional swaps in the kitchen is a way to incorporate lower-emissions choices while also creating an opportunity to engage in creative, whole cooking. By swapping high-emission foods for various low-emission options at home, you can use personal action to support a brighter future.

From Green American Magazine Issue