Worst foods for the environment

12 Worst Foods For The Environment And 7 Greener Swaps

We all know that our diet can have a substantial impact on our health. But did you know that some of what we consume are the worst foods for the environment? From pollution to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, some foods are primarily responsible for impacting our environment in the worst possible way.

As eco-conscious consumers, we must weigh our food choices and eat with the environment in mind. In this article, we discuss unsustainable food and why they are bad for the planet. Of course, we also included the good food choices.

12 Worst Foods For The Environment     

1. Beef production

Red meat, particularly beef, has a negative environmental impact. Why? This is because they produce emissions throughout the supply chain, right from clearing lands to feeding large animals to transporting and slaughtering them, as well as the packaging of animal bodies. 

Research says dairy cattle and beef contributed 65% of greenhouse gas emissions from the Livestock sector.

One of the most damaging effects of beef is that it produces methane emissions3. The methane produced doesn't just contribute to climate change. Still, it has an environmental impact that is 34 times greater than carbon dioxide(CO2).

In addition to its impact on our planet, beef also impacts land use. According to the World Resource Institute, beef requires the use of 20 times more land than plant proteins.

Red meat production also requires large amounts of animal feed, like corn and soy, which are resource-intensive. From all indications, eating less meat goes a long way in protecting our planet. 

2. Palm oil

Alongside soybean oil, palm oil is one of the most widely used oils in the food industry. Manufacturers use palm oil to make sweet products and dishes. Unfortunately, this popular oil comes with significant environmental problems. 

The palm oil industry results in large-scale deforestation and destruction of natural habitats, leading to endangered species like tigers, water, soil, and air pollution, soil erosion, as well as greenhouse gases during deforestation and production of palm oil. 

3. Sugar 

brown sugar
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash.

If you love sugar, you may not like this one. Sadly, sugar has one of the worst environmental footprints. WWF reveals that sugarcane is one of the most harmful crops for the planet1, as it replaces habitats rich in plant, insect, and animal life. 

Moreover, it requires the intensive use of land, water, and pesticides while causing soil erosion and deforestation.

Some deforested lands have lost their carbon content, and the carbon is now in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. 

With this high climate impact, it is essential to look for a more sustainable sugar culture, including reducing our sugar consumption. 

4. Cow’s milk 

cow's milk
Photo by Gabi Miranda on Unsplash.

The dairy industry has had an adverse impact on our environment. Cow’s milk is not left out of the hazard. Data reveals that it has three times the impact of soy milk and uses much more land.

This is not to mention the production of methane - a harmful gas from cows. Cows also require feeds, which take up more resources. Overall, cow's milk isn’t the best type of milk for our environment. You can replace them with other plant-based options like oat and hazelnut milk. 

5. Cheese

Cheese has a large carbon footprint and is one of the unsustainable foods for our planet. Like milk, cheese comes from dairy cows that produce methane and other harmful gases. 

To produce cheese, manufacturers need a significant amount of milk. Statistics reveal that for every kilo of cheese that manufacturers have, 23.88 kilograms of greenhouse gases are released, making it the fifth largest producer of greenhouse gases when it comes to food products.

In addition, the production of cheese, milk, and other products in the dairy industry also has a damaging effect on land and water use. 

Fortunately, you don’t have to stop eating cheese together. There are eco-friendly cheese options like cottage cheese, which produces less global emissions. Dairy-free cheese is the best alternative because of its low carbon footprint. 

6. Rice and other cereal grains 

brown wheat
Photo by Sandy Ravaloniaina on Unsplash.

Rice and other types of cereal are a staple food for more than half of the world’s population. And while they are plant-based foods, they harm our environment. Rice fields release significant quantities of methane. According to research, we can link rice production2 up to 11% of the global methane emissions.

This makes rice production the largest producer of human methane, moving ahead of livestock production. Other cereals like corn and flour products also consume lots of resources like water and can also have an effect on plant biodiversity if not properly cultivated. 

7. Fish 

Prawns, shrimps, and all types of farmed fish come with damaging gas emissions. 

In fish farms, people subject these wild fish to unfavorable conditions, which lead to injuries, diseases, and even death. Fish farmers use large amounts of chemicals to keep fish alive. These chemicals pollute the waters, affecting the population.

According to findings, fish farming also causes a marine biodiversity crisis, with around 18 tonnes of wild fish that farmers catch to make non-food products like fish oil and fish meal.

Generally speaking, fish farming is harmful to our environment. Also, to capture non-local fishes, farmers travel long distances using large boats, which produces more carbon footprint than smaller boats.

Related read: 13 Most Sustainable Fish & Responsible Seafood Choices.

8. Chocolate 

chocolate and cacao
Photo by Tetiana Bykovets on Unsplash.

Yes, even our chocolate has a negative impact on the environment. While not many people eat large amounts of chocolate daily, dark chocolate has a significant carbon footprint on cocoa production, which consumes lots of resources like water, putting more strain on our natural ecosystem. 

Deforestation, child labor, and biodiversity loss are effects of cocoa production used in making chocolates. 

In addition, chocolate goes through several processes, including roasting, fermentation, grinding, adding milk, sugar, and vegetables, and other processes that contribute to increasing the environmental impact of chocolates. 

On the bright side, a few chocolate brands, like Beyond Good and Theo Chocolate, use Fair Trade-certified cocoa. 

9. Coffee

The next time you sip a cup of hot coffee in the morning, you want to think of what impact it could have on our environment. Well, just like chocolate, coffee also contributes to deforestation, erosion, and intense use of pesticides, water, and other resources. 

To avoid this, you want to look out for coffee with certifications like "Fair Trade," "Bird Friendly," or "Rainforest Alliance."

Related read: 17 Best Fair Trade Coffee Brands for Ethical Caffeine Fixes.

10. Bananas

banana
Photo by Lotte Löhr on Unsplash.

Let’s talk about bananas. So, while bananas as a fruit don’t have as much environmental impact, the movement of bananas across countries worldwide has a significant environmental impact. 

Most people eat bananas, and as a result of increased consumption, leading countries of bananas like the Philippines and Costa Rica export lots of bananas to Europe. 

Sadly, these bananas and even other fruits and vegetables travel many miles before they reach a local grocery store in Europe. This process releases carbon emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. 

11. Soybeans 

soybeans
Photo by Thomas Kinto on Unsplash.

Soybeans are another plant-based food that falls on our list of some of the worst foods for our environment. Farmers grow tons of soybeans, which largely go into producing soybean oil, livestock feed, and soy foods, including tofu and soy milk. 

Soybeans mainly grow in Latin America, and the high demand has led to deforestation. Also, during the production of the oil, manufacturers use chemicals that cause pollution and also release harmful gases. 

12. Meat from turkey, chicken, and ducks 

Not only does red meat affect the environment, but meat from chickens, ducks, and turkeys also has an adverse impact on our planet. Poultry farming has a significant carbon footprint, almost higher than plant-based foods like rice. 

Poultry also contributes to environmental issues like deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Chicken farms contribute to climate change. While they don’t produce methane, they make other gases like CO2 from burning fossil fuels for fertilizer application. 

Chicken manure can also harm the quality of water and soil. 

So what kinds of foods are good for the environment? 

Is it all bad news? Well, not entirely. Generally, producing food in mass comes with some impact on our planet. However, plant foods are much better for our planet. 

Related read: 9 Most Sustainable Foods For Greener Plates.

1. Beans and pulses 

Beans and pulses like lentils and peas are great for our environment. They can convert nitrogen from the air and fix it in a manner the plants can use. Peanuts have nitrogen-fixing properties that can reduce erosion if you rotate them with other crops. 

They also rely on green water, water from precipitation stored in the root of the soil and then evaporated by plants. Apart from being healthy for the environment, beans and pulses also contain healthy nutrients like protein and vitamin B. 

2. Leafy greens 

leafy greens
Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

Vegetables like cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower have less environmental footprint than animal products like eggs. Leafy greens like spinach and kale are also great for the planet and you. 

Experts consider them one of the most sustainable foods on the market. These vegetables also require less resources to produce large quantities, making them good for the planet. 

3. Fruit vegetables 

tomatoes
Photo by Josephine Baran on Unsplash.

Apart from leafy greens, vegetable-like fruits are also great both for the environment and for you. They contain high levels of carbohydrates and water when compared to greens. They also have high fiber and vitamin C.

These types of fruits grow in warm climates, and you can eat them in various forms. Some examples of fruit vegetables include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash, etc. Apart from these types of fruits, citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapes have a low impact, making them great for our environment. 

4. Nuts

Did you know that nuts have a net positive impact on our environment? Well, nuts grow on trees, which absorb carbon, reducing the harmful gases in our climate. 

Moreover, farming on trees is a crucial part of regenerative agriculture and contributes positively to biodiversity loss. 

5. Algae

Algae is rich in protein and has a meat kind of flavor, making it a great meat substitute. But aside from its flavor and nutrients, the biggest benefit comes to the environment.

This type of food contributes massively to oxygen production and is critical for all aquatic ecosystems. Laver seaweed and Wakame seaweed are examples of algae with various nutrients.

6. Tubers 

potatoes
Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash.

Tubers are high in carbohydrates and are great sources of energy. You can eat them in diverse forms. You can boil, bake, or mash them. A common type of tuber is potato. Tubers grow downwards and anchor the plant into the ground. 

In the ground, they absorb nutrients used during the drier months or in winter. Other examples of tubers include Ube or purple yam, Lotus root, Yam bean root, etc.

7. Edible mushrooms

edible mushroom
Photo by Thanh Soledas on Unsplash.

Mushrooms have been around for centuries. You can find more than 2,000 species of edible mushrooms with juicy nutrients like Vitamin B, protein, and fiber. What's more, they are flavorful and a great meat substitute. 

Mushrooms may appear like plants but are fungi. They can grow where other types of food cannot and are good for the environment. One example of an edible mushroom is the Enoki mushroom, commonly eaten in East Asian countries like China and Japan.

Related read: 15 Colorful Mushrooms Of The Fantastic Fungi World.

Final Thoughts: Worst Foods For The Environment  

Not all foods are created equal. Our food has several environmental impacts on our climate, oceans, lands, habitats, trees, and other natural resources. 

With this in mind, choosing more sustainable foods, primarily plant-based, can positively impact our environment and save future generations.

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Pin Image Portrait 12 Worst Foods For The Environment And 7 Greener Swaps
1

WWF. (2005). Sugar and the Environment - Encouraging better management practices in sugar production and Pro.

2

Nikolaisen, M., Hillier, J., Smith, P., & Nayak, D. R. (2023). Modelling CH4 emission from rice ecosystem: A comparison between existing empirical models. Frontiers in Agronomy, 4

3

Fiore, M., Spada, A., Contò, F., & Pellegrini, G. (2018). GHG and cattle farming: CO-assessing the emissions and economic performances in Italy. Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, 3704–3712. 

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Polina Rytova on Unsplash
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