Christina Manian, RD
The global food system is a major contributor to climate change. It’s responsible for 33 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according the United Nations. So the more we can support food producers that are making it possible to buy foods with lower carbon footprints, the further we can move the needle toward carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, practices being the norm.
Thankfully, we have evidence showing us which foods have a lower carbon footprint you can buy at most grocery stores… because what’s sustainable about turning you on to a niche, carbon-negative tea you have to order from Canada?
8 foods with lower carbon footprints
1. Root vegetables
Our World in Data, a far-reaching research group, has compiled data from 38,700 farming operations across 119 countries to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions of simple ingredients that many of us utilize so often in cooking. On average, plant-based foods have 10 to 50 times less CO2 emissions when compared to most animal-based products. This is evident when looking at our first low-carbon-footprint food, root vegetables, which emit 0.4 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram (kg CO2/kg).
2. Nature’s Path Products
One packaged food brand you can readily find at the grocery store that is supporting sustainable food production is Nature’s Path. They offer a variety of cereals, oatmeals, bars, granolas, chips, pastries, waffles, and more. This brand is considered an industry leader in sustainability, due in large part to the Regenerative Organic CertifiedⓇ label they proudly display on their products, verifying that they uphold high environmental standards. This certification takes an important step beyond organic toward even more impactful sustainability practices.
Regenerative organic farming combines a variety of processes that help to revive soils and ecosystems, increasing the carbon-sequestering power of the soil and surrounding plant ecosystems, while naturally reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, the certification also prioritizes animal welfare and social equity.
3. Citrus fruits
Because citrus fruits are harvested from trees that typically remain in the ground for decades–sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and keeping it in the soil long-term—they’re a great sustainable food choice. With only 0.3 kg CO2/kg, you can feel good about enjoying these bright bursts of flavor.
It’s hard to beat an artfully assembled bowl of oatmeal with all the fixings in the morning, especially once you realize how low of an environmental impact it has. This is also true when considering oat milk. Compared to other alternative milk options, oat reigns supreme as it uses much less water, about six-times less than almond milk. Dry oats emit only 0.6 kg CO2/kg, making your grandmother’s oatmeal cookie recipe that much sweeter.
Similarly to how plants on land sequester carbon, so do plants underwater. Various types of algae including seaweed, kelp, wakame, nori, and spirulina have become super popular as of late, largely due to their impressive health benefits. But the marine ecosystems that these salty superfoods call home remarkably exhibit 20 times the carbon sequestering power of land forests as they grow faster and can cover more surface area.
6. Neutral organic milk and butter
Emerging in larger grocery stores from coast to coast, Neutral Foods is a line of dairy products that proudly boasts carbon neutrality across the brand. They achieve this through partnering with dairy farmers to significantly reduce their production emissions, choosing smarter packaging options, diligently measuring (and reducing) emissions across the entire life cycle of their products, and purchasing offsets where further reductions can’t be made. This is significant as dairy production contributes up to one third of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the global food system. Plus, they are the first dairy brand to claim carbon neutrality – and have the evidence to back it up.
While nuts can get a bad environmental rep due to some varieties’ high water needs, Our World in Data has found that they provide 0.3 kg CO2/kg. What’s more, the data actually shows that nuts have a negative land use figure in their emissions calculation. This is because, with the increasing popularity of nuts, nut trees are replacing cropland, sequestering serious amounts of carbon, and building healthy soil for years to come in the process.
When it comes to sustainable protein choices, it’s hard to beat beans. The BBC created a sustainability calculator showing the environmental impact of around 40 different foods based on data from 40,000 farms and 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. Using this calculator, eating one serving of beans every day for a year produces the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving 93 miles. Compare this to the emissions a daily serving of conventionally raised beef for a year would rack up—a staggering 7,196 driven miles.
While this list is far from comprehensive, these foods can give you a head start toward living a more environmentally conscious culinary life. Generally speaking, when browsing the grocery store with a low-carbon lens, try to focus on plant-based foods, products with minimal ingredients, package-free or minimally packaged foods, seasonal produce, and locally produced foods from farmers that employ environmentally sound practices.