Foodie Friday: Foods That Are Bad for the Environment – But Easy to Avoid!

As you may recall, I’ve been cutting down on eating meat (red meat in particular) as an easy way to decrease my carbon footprint (according to some sources, getting rid of meat in your diet is the most impactful way to help the environment as an individual). Meats are the biggest offenders (along with dairy products), but there are plenty of other foods that are environmentally harmful yet have simple substitutes or ways to decrease your carbon footprint!

Up front I want to say that NO food is environmentally perfect, and that each situation is different.  For example, you may environmentally do better drinking cow’s milk from a local dairy that has travelled a few blocks rather than having coconut milk that has the carbon footprint of being imported.  Additionally, the foods on this list are by no means the only items with large carbon footprints, they’re just foods with large carbon footprints that are easy to avoid, or easy to offset!

  1. Almonds (and almond milk).

Almonds use a disproportionate amount of water (one gallon for a SINGLE NUT), and 80% of almonds are grown in drought-ridden California. Almond milk is a big offender here, because it requires using (and processing) almonds and adding yet more water. Go with different nuts, and according to this nutritionist try coconut milk instead! She also suggests something called ‘pea milk,’ but I have literally never seen that on a shelf so good luck finding it … Apparently soy has its own set of issues, so soy milk should also be off the table (but don’t worry, it’s still less harmful than almond milk or cow milk).

  1. Bottled water.

Heavily packaged foods (especially a fast food meal, with its tons of packaging and meat-heavy menus), are generally environmentally harmful, just by the energy required to create the packaging, and then dispose of or recycle it.

But no packaged food is more irritating than bottled water.

Water comes free, from your tap! Drink it from there instead of buying a bottle with a huge carbon footprint. Not only is the packaging an issue, but water is heavy and has to be shipped. Fiji water really gets to me. Do we really need water from thousands of miles away, when we have water here? Clean water is probably the best thing about living in a first world country. Let’s appreciate that!

Really, this one is a no-brainer both for my cheapskate side (why pay for something free?) and my environmental side.

  1. Refined sugar.

As someone with a salt tooth rather than a sweet tooth, I’ll admit that this one may be a little easier to swallow (pun intended) for me than for others. The production and processing of sugar is all-around bad.

The good news is that the alternatives to your standard teaspoon of sugar for your coffee are pretty amazing. Honey, maple syrup or agave are all more environmentally-friendly options.

  1. Coffee (ouch).

This one hits me hard. I seriously think it would be easier for me to give up meat forever than to give up coffee for a few years. I can tell you right now that not having coffee when I was pregnant was SO much harder than giving up alcohol …

Coffee uses a huge amount of water, and large swaths of land are deforested to grow it. That said, HALF of water and energy waste involved in coffee production is on the retail end  – basically keeping the lights on, the paper cups plentiful and the grinders going at your local coffee shop. This makes it much easier to cut down on your coffee carbon footprint. By simply making your coffee at home and using a reusable mug, you can cut down on your waste by nearly 50%. That’s a very easy step for a big impact.

You can also purchase shade-grown coffee, and fair trade is also a good idea (to ensure fair treatment of workers).

Unfortunately, though, for those of us living in the US, coffee comes from far away, so if you want to eliminate the impact of importation on carbon emissions, you’re going to have to skip coffee altogether.

  1. High fructose corn syrup.

This nasty little minx hides in so many common foods. Of course it shows up in the obvious spots (soda, juice, candy, cereals), but this corn-based sweetener also can be found in bread, granola, ketchup, barbecue sauce, canned fruit, salad dressing, yogurt … basically, if it comes in a package and not out of a produce bin, take a look-see for high fructose corn syrup.

Why is it bad? Corn production uses a lot of chemicals (including pesticides and fertilizer) that lead to harmful runoff. I tend to be an eye-roller about the obsession with genetically modified foods (given that pretty much all the food we eat could be considered to be genetically modified since its been bred over centuries to be easier to grow and larger), but chemicals used on food are no joke. One herbicide commonly used for corn has been found to turn male frogs into hermaphrodites, and the runoff from corn production is largely responsible for the ‘dead zone’ where nothing will grow near the Gulf of Mexico. NO THANKS.

The nice thing is that high fructose corn syrup could not be any easier to avoid. If you look at a product that has it, chances are there’s a near-identical product a few choices down that doesn’t.

As an added benefit, high fructose corn syrup is truly terrible for you, so is great to cut out of your diet for your own well-being alone.

A couple of interesting things I realized while reading about the foods above …

First, generally knowing the environmental impact of a food inadvertently has the benefit of making me eat healthier (and vice versa – if I know a food is bad for me I know there’s a good chance it’s bad for the environment, too). With the exception of almonds (coffee is debatable), all the foods above that are bad for the environment are also bad for your health. This is a handy little off-list reference, too. Lots of meat? Not great for you. Bad for the environment? Yup. Fast food? Obviously terrible for your heath. Bad for the environment? YES. It’s a quickie little mental reference. I love chips, for example. I know they are bad for me. Are they also bad for the environment? YUP (hello high fructose corn syrup and … corn). There are some exceptions, of course (like soy, which is environmentally not great but is healthy, or cow’s milk, again environmentally harmful but with health benefits), but generally if you consider environmental impact you likely will also (accidentally) be eating healthier.

Second, I learned that if the US government is subsidizing a food super heavily it is probably something you should be eating less of. FASCINATING. The top subsidized foods are corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock.

Subsidies aren’t inherently bad (pretty much every government on earth supports farmers in this way), but a huge amount of government agricultural subsidies go to support these mainly-bad-for-you foods, rather than production of other agricultural products that are better for us. This keeps corn prices low and, say, Brussels sprout and carrot prices high, since they aren’t subsidized the same way. Not to mention these particular subsidies keep us eating sweetened, fatty stuff that’s bad for us and the environment instead of more expensive, environmentally better and better for us foods.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that government actions often benefit the few at the heavy expense of the many, even in unexpected areas like food …