The 5 Best Foods for the Environment—and the 5 Worst

If you've never considered eating algae, we guarantee you will now.

Photo: Emma Darvick

We make hundreds of food choices a week, for as many reasons—accessibility, taste, health, affordability, and novelty among them. This is not a list of foods that one should or shouldn't eat; rather, this is additional information to help make those choices.

Consider the graph below. You might be surprised to see that some of your favorite foods—health benefits aside—have the most detrimental effects on the environment. It doesn't mean that you need to swear off avocados or chocolate altogether (not a chance!), but the knowledge will help inform your food choices.

There is one very clear takeaway, though: Food that is sustainable is also incredibly nutritious. Your own health and the health of the planet go hand in hand.

Julia Bohan

These foods rank highest and lowest in terms of greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain according to research compiled by Our World in Data. The rankings take into consideration land use, emissions at the farm, animal feed, processing emissions for converting the items into sellable products, transportation, and food miles. It also factors in the energy needed at retail establishments (such as refrigerators) and emissions from the production of each product's packaging materials.

Eat Less of These Foods

Red Meat: Beef and Lamb

Environmental Grade: 1/5 Health Grade: 1/5

Unsurprisingly, red meats (particularly beef, with lamb a close-ish second) rank at the top of the list when it comes to the highest carbon footprint and detrimental effects on the environment. Producing a kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases and requires over 900 gallons of water. In addition to its harmful effects on climate change, eating two servings of red meat per week has been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease by 3 to 7 percent.

Better choice: Swap beef for bison meat.


Environmental Grade: 2/5 Health Grade: 3/5

If you're a cheese lover, you may be disappointed to hear that the production of cheese ranks just below red meat as one of the worst foods for the environment. Cheese relies heavily on dairy cows that release large amounts of methane, which has a global-warming impact that is 25 times higher than carbon dioxide.

In terms of health, researchers from Harvard have found that dairy fat is not necessarily associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease when compared with the same amount of calories from carbohydrates. However, they also found that replacing about 5 percent of your daily calories from dairy fat with a similar amount of unsaturated fat from vegetables or vegetable oil was linked to a 24 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

"Overall, the results are consistent with current dietary recommendations to consume mostly unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats," says Frank B. Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

Better choices: Feta, chèvre, brie, Camembert and mozzarella have smaller environmental footprints than other cheeses.


Environmental Grade: 2/5 Health Grade: 3/5

Though chocolate can seemingly only bring joy to one's life, the impact on the environment might make you think twice about indulging in a bar of this decadent dessert. Research from the World Economic Forum shows that the "commercial chocolate industry is shrinking rainforests, emitting significant levels of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, and contributing to climate change."

In addition to the deforestation caused by cultivating cacao beans, most chocolate bars are made with sugar and milk, two other less than environmentally friendly culprits. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found that sugar cultivation contributes to diminished soil degradation and quantity, while the dairy industry requires 144 gallons of water to produce only one gallon of milk.

On the bright side, while technically a dessert, dark chocolate has been shown to offer a few notable health benefits—it's rich in plant chemicals called flavanols, which may help to protect the heart and reduce your risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Better choice: Opt for fair-trade dark chocolate.

Produce Grown Internationally

Environmental Grade: 3/5 Health Grade: 5/5

Fresh as they may seem, many of your favorite fruits and veggies traveled long distances to get to your local grocery store. Commonly consumed crops like avocados, bananas, and grapes are typically grown, harvested, and imported outside of the United States.

When purchasing these products, you may have noticed your avocados labeled with "Made in Mexico" stickers or that your bananas came from countries in Latin America, like Panama, Costa Rica, or Guatemala. This is concerning because internationally grown produce contributes significantly more food miles—and therefore gas emissions—when compared to locally grown crops. For one, these perishable items are typically air-freighted by airplane. While great for maintaining freshness, this is problematic in regards to global warming.

However, according to the American Heart Association, "all fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that may help prevent heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses." Translation? Fresh produce is about as healthy as it gets.

Better choice: Shop local and in season.


Environmental Grade: 2/5 Health Grade: 4/5

When it comes to the environment, coffee is actually quite the buzzkill. Research shows that coffee production emits about 15 kilograms of CO2-equivalents per kilogram of product. These emissions are caused by farming, packaging, and effects on the land. Seeing as seven in 10 Americans consume coffee daily, our nation's demand for coffee continues to grow and the impacts on the environment have followed suit.

In terms of health, research has shown that coffee is quite good for you. "The consumption of caffeinated coffee does not increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancers," says a review from The New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, it states that the consumption of three to five standard cups of coffee daily has been consistently associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease. The review does caution, however, that a person's metabolism and sensitivity to caffeine varies, and "current evidence does not warrant recommending caffeine or coffee intake for disease prevention."

Better choice: Opt for fair trade coffee.

Eat More of These Foods


Environmental Grade: 5/5 Health Grade: 5/5

According to a report released by the WWF called "The Future 50 Foods," algae is a nutrient-rich plant that is responsible for half of all oxygen production on earth and all aquatic ecosystems rely on it. The marine plant contains essential fatty acids, is rich in vitamin C and iodine, is a great source of antioxidants, and is packed with protein. The WWF refers to edible seaweed as a "game changer" for its ability to grow in vast areas of the ocean and availability to harvest throughout the year, plus it does not require any use of pesticides or fertilizers.

Pulses and Beans

Environmental Grade: 5/5 Health Grade: 5/5

The WWF praises beans and other pulses—including lentils, peas, and chickpeas—for their ability to convert nitrogen from the air and "fix" it into a form that can be readily used by plants. Pulses also rely heavily on "green water," which refers to water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired, or incorporated by plants.

Additionally, beans offer healthy nutrients for a daily diet and are a source of fiber, protein, and B vitamins. A ½ cup of cooked beans provides about 7 grams of protein, which would equate to 1 ounce of meat.

Leafy Greens

Environmental Grade: 5/5 Health Grade: 5/5

Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and arugula boast a medley of health benefits and are rich in healthful vitamins like A, C, E, and K. According to the USDA, they aid in "protecting bones from osteoporosis and helping to prevent against inflammatory diseases," and have "antioxidants, [which are] proven to decrease the risk of heart disease."

Adding a handful of greens can help transform any recipe into a delicious and nutritious meal for the day. Aside from the benefits for humans, leafy greens are considered one of the top eco-friendly and sustainable foods on the market. Requiring minimal resources to produce large quantities, they are just as good for the environment as they are for you.


Environmental Grade: 5/5 Health Grade: 5/5

According to the WWF, "mushrooms can grow where many other foods would not, including on by-products recycled from other crops." Additionally, a 2017 report by the Mushroom Council assessed the environmental impacts of growing mushrooms over two years and found that the production of a pound of mushrooms requires far less water and energy than most other agricultural crops, with an extremely low CO2 emissions rate to boot.

One pound of button mushrooms requires just 2 gallons of water to produce, which is far less than the average of 50 gallons of water per pound other fresh produce items demand. With more than 2,000 edible varieties, great flavor, and rich nutritional value like protein and fiber, mushrooms add flavor and substance to every meal without heavily impacting the environment.

Cereals and Grains

Environmental Grade: 4/5 Health Grade: 4/5

An integral component of the human diet for centuries, cereals and grains have been shown to offer many benefits and health-promoting components, such as dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants like polyphenols and phytosterols. Cereals and grains (such as wheat and rye) rank low on greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only 1.4 kilograms of CO2-equivalents per kilogram of product.

Generally speaking, plant-based products emit 10 to 50 times fewer emissions compared to animal-based products. Additionally, cereal grains like wheat require just 138 gallons of water per pound, which is about 7 percent of the water needed to produce the equivalent quantity of beef.

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