8 “Clean” Foods That are Bad for the Environment (And 8 Alternatives to Eat Instead)

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Written by Lydia Noyes


Lydia Noyes

Climate Journalist

Lydia Noyes is an organic farmer and climate journalist. She is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.


The foods on this list might be healthy but aren’t great for the environment.

When it comes to eating healthy and helping the environment, these goals are often less aligned than you may think.

Today, many foods that are good for our bodies are produced or harvested in ways that put the planet in peril. This can put you in a challenging position when deciding whether to keep them in your diet.

Eight Foods to Pass on for the Planet

The best way to choose what to eat is by facing the facts. Below, let’s look at eight “clean” foods that are worse for the planet than people realize.

1. Greek Yogurt

This tangy dairy product packs in twice the protein of regular yogurt, but the manufacturing process creates alarming amounts of waste. Greek yogurt is made by straining regular yogurt to separate the whey—a liquid made from water, lactose, protein, and yogurt cultures. This waste whey adds up quickly, as every ounce of milk used for Greek yogurt results in ¾ ounces of whey.  

Dealing with whey on an industrial scale is an ecological nightmare. Whey can’t be dumped, as it’s highly toxic to water systems and can deprive large areas of oxygen which triggers widespread kill-off events. While some whey makes its way into animal feed and infant formula, the rest must be processed in sewage treatment plants.

2. Farmed Salmon

It’s no secret that the oceans are running out of wild fish, but farmed varieties aren’t the environmental answer we once thought. Salmon may be high in heart-healthy omega-3s, but every serving contributes to the global overfishing crisis.

It takes 3kg of wild fish to produce every kg of farmed salmon, and raising these fish in factory farming conditions requires copious amounts of antibiotics and other chemical additives that spread through the water system and contaminate ocean ecosystems.

Factor in the emissions associated with transporting fresh fish from the farm to table, and eating salmon is far from environmentally sustainable.

3. Brown Rice

Though it’s a staple crop for over half of the world’s population, rice cultivation requires more than its fair share of natural resources. By some reports, it takes over 3,400 liters of water for every kg of rice, which makes it accountable for one-third of the planet’s freshwater usage each year.

Worse still, the soaking wet paddies it grows in produce up to 100 million tons of methane per year. This makes rice responsible for more of this potent greenhouse gas than all livestock production.

4. Bananas

This classic breakfast fruit comes with troubling ecological consequences. Bananas require millions of tons of pesticides and other toxic agrochemicals to grow. Large portions of these leach into local water systems and kill aquatic life while polluting the drinking water for the communities around the plantations.

Many of these compounds are linked to severe health consequences for those exposed, including respiratory problems, cancer, and a higher risk of birth defects.

5. Avocados

Your guacamole isn’t as green as it may appear. Avocado production takes a massive toll on the environment. Most are grown in Mexico throughout arid orchards that require tremendous amounts of irrigation to maintain production, which pulls precious water away from the local communities and the crops they need to sustain them.

Increased demand means that avocado orchards are a leading cause of deforestation throughout the region—up to 1,700 acres of forest lost per year, according to one 2018 study.

The damage doesn’t end there. Avocados are shipped around the world in temperature-controlled storage containers, meaning that two small avocados contribute up to 850 grams of carbon to the atmosphere.

6. Lamb

Compared to beef and pork, lamb is often considered a lesser evil animal product for the environment. Unfortunately, that reputation isn’t deserved. Lamb actually produces 50% more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than beef, primarily because you get less usable meat off the animal.

One small study shows that lamb’s carbon footprint goes down considerably when the animals feed only on pasture, but the animals remain one of the least sustainable protein choices you can make.

7. Asparagus

Asparagus is a delicate perennial with a short growing season. If you’re eating it any time other than early spring, the odds are the spears traveled halfway around the world before landing on your plate.

One study estimates that every pound of out-of-season asparagus produces 19.6 pounds of CO2 emissions, primarily due to transportation through air freight. This puts it ahead of animal products like pork, veal, chicken, eggs, and milk regarding its ecological impact.

8. Almond Milk

While many consider nut-based milks to be the superior choice for personal health and the planet, almond production leaves a lot to be desired from an environmental standpoint. California grows more than 80% of the world’s almonds, and the state’s increasingly arid conditions aren’t doing these thirsty trees any favors.  

It takes over a gallon of water to produce a single almond—an ecologically costly endeavor as California deals with one of the worst droughts in state history.

8 Environmentally Sustainable Foods to Eat Instead

Now for some good news—not everything that’s nutritionally good for us has to harm the planet. Some foods are a win for both your health and the earth as a whole. Here’s what you should be filling your plate with.  

1. Lentils

This humble legume is considered one of the best climate-friendly proteins available for three reasons: it’s easy to grow, cheap to transport, and shelf-stable, which minimizes waste. Lentil production and transportation totals only 0.9kg of CO2 per kg produced, over 40 times less than animal-based proteins like beef and lamb.

2. Tofu

Soybean production wastes valuable environmental resources, in large part because most are grown for animal feed in a highly inefficient transfer of protein to people. Consuming soy itself, as with tofu, is far better for the planet. Each kilogram of tofu creates just two kilograms of carbon, which is the equivalent of driving less than a mile for every four ounces you eat.

3. Peas

Peas make sense from an environmental perspective. This surprisingly hardy crop is a natural nitrogen fixer. That means the plants require minimal amounts of synthetic fertilizer and can actually improve the soil over the long run. Best of all, it takes just 1.2kg of carbon emissions to produce and sell one kg of peas for a lower than average carbon footprint for produce

4. Broccoli (and Other Cruciferous Vegetables)

You can thank broccoli’s bitter taste for an environmental benefit—this vegetable (and its cruciferous relatives) produce natural pesticides that protect them from insect damage without any synthetic inputs. Most varieties are also travel-hardy, and a four-ounce serving only generates the carbon emissions equivalent of driving less than one mile.  

5. Algae

Don’t skip this suggestion without looking at the facts. Algae’s fish-like flavor, sky-high protein and antioxidant content, and ultra-low environmental impact make it a food that belongs on every clean eater’s plate. Growing algae is more sustainable than land plants, as it requires few inputs, can be grown year-round in oceans worldwide, and produces minimal greenhouse gasses. In fact, algae is responsible for producing half the world’s oxygen supply.

6. Cacti

This desert plant deserves a second look. Cacti thrive in some of the most punishing environments on the planet, and their lobes and fruit offer a highly nutritious meal of vitamin C and E, as well as carotenoids, fiber, and amino acids. This makes cacti a top contender for one of the most sustainable food sources in the era of climate change.

7. (Locally Grown) Leafy greens

Easy to grow and packed with vitamins and minerals, we all could afford to include more leafy greens in our lives. They take little time to mature and even thrive in degraded soil.

However, it’s important to pay attention to where your greens come from. These delicate plants require climate-controlled transportation but still lose nutrients quickly in the process. This means that the best option for the planet and your health is to source greens grown locally and to eat them soon after harvesting.

8. Mushrooms

Mushroom’s meaty flavor may make them the animal-product alternative of the future for climate-conscious eaters. These versatile fungi are a stellar source of protein, fiber, and B vitamins.

Most mushrooms can be grown sustainably in regions not well-suited to other food crops. Few (if any) synthetic amendments are needed, and a two-year environmental footprint assessment determined that, pound for pound, mushroom production requires significantly less water than other agricultural products.

Make the Right Choices for the Earth and Your Health

What you eat makes a difference—both for your health and for the planet. Sometimes, the choices that benefit your body aren’t the best for environmental sustainability.

So here’s a general rule: focus on filling up on local, in-season foods as much as possible and keep your animal product consumption to a minimum. If you follow this guideline, you’ll cut down the carbon footprint of your diet considerably.

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