Sustainable Foods for the Future

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What common plant-based foods are the most sustainable?

Firstly, what is a sustainable diet? It’s generally accepted that they are diets that “promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing [and] have low environmental pressure and impact”. Put simply, a sustainable diet is one that makes you healthy and doesn’t destroy the environment.

A vegan diet has the lowest carbon footprint of any diet while animal farming uses up far more resources and causes a lot more pollution than growing crops. However, there are big differences between one plant food and another. Below, you’ll find the most sustainable vegan foods – they all have a low carbon footprint and their cultivation is sustainable in terms of low water use and pesticide and fertilizer requirements. In fact, there are even more sustainable foods in the world but here I’m concentrating on foods that are common and easily available.



Oats are a great source of healthy carbohydrates, including fibre, are low in fat and, perhaps surprisingly, high in protein. They pack a good bunch of vitamins and minerals too – several B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

Oats require much less water to grow than most other grains because their long roots reach down and help to retain rainwater in the ground and this reduces soil erosion. Widely cultivated across Europe, oats are usually a local crop and it’s likely that the oats in your usual shop are local, rather than imported. A bonus is they often come in paper bags so no plastic – much more environmentally friendly.


Beans and lentils

Both offer an amazing nutrient package, being rich in protein, healthy carbohydrates, fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and important minerals, such as calcium and iron.

Farming beans and lentils requires very little water and they grow in a way that fortifies the soil with nitrogen and makes growing other crops easier. Nitrogen is a major ingredient in common fertilizers so by enriching the soil with it, beans and lentils bypass the need for these added chemicals.

A recent study called for more beans and lentils to be grown in Europe. Adding them to crop rotations that typically include wheat, barley and rapeseed, offers great environmental benefits and helps to increase the availability of nutritious local foods.


Hemp seeds

Rich in protein, omega-3 fats, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc, hemp seeds could be called a superfood. What’s more, their production uses 85 times less water to grow than beef!  Hemp also absorbs more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop and this makes it a ‘carbon sink’ – a term reserved for the most efficient CO2 absorbers.

As if the above wasn’t amazing enough, hemp has another tremendous advantage – you can use almost the whole plant for products such as clothing, paper, bio-fuel and cosmetics.



Tofu is not just incredibly versatile, it’s also nutrient dense, offering protein, fibre, unsaturated fats, B vitamins, iron, calcium and other minerals. Yes, it’s processed but very little and is certainly one of the healthiest foods out there.

Tofu is made from soya beans, which are pulses and just like beans and lentils, soya cultivation naturally enriches the soil with nitrogen. Perhaps surprisingly, many European tofu manufacturers use soya beans that are grown in Europe. There’s a new standard covering it called The Europe Soya Standard and approved products carry the label Europe Soya. It ensures that the soya used is of European origin, not genetically modified, grown with reduced pesticides, does not come from deforested land and is in compliance with international social and labour rights.

If you ever see claims about soya being bad for the environment, remember that as much as 80 per cent of world’s soya is fed to livestock and much of the rest used to pad out meat pies, pasties and pet food – so yes, that is wasteful and not sustainable but growing soya for tofu is a different story.


Leafy greens

Veggies such as spinach, kale, cabbage, watercress and broccoli are great sources of minerals and antioxidants, may lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and have anti-inflammatory properties.

They’re all fast growing so farmers get more harvests per year and have a very low carbon footprint due to efficient farming methods. Unfortunately, leafy greens also happen to be among the biggest contributors to food waste so buy only as much as you know you can eat.



Mushrooms offer a number of important nutrients such as B vitamins, copper and phosphorus essential for healthy bones, antioxidants and immunity-boosting beta-glucans.

Mushroom growing is environmentally friendly as mushroom farmers tend to use upcycled materials from other farms to form the growing substrate – materials that would otherwise go to waste. Water and energy use is minimal, as is land use. Mushroom farms are very space-efficient because mushrooms-growing trays are stacked vertically.



Perhaps it’s not on your weekly shopping list but it should be! Buckwheat is a good source of protein, healthy carbohydrates, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin K and health-protective phytochemicals. If you’re not keen on buckwheat groats, try using buckwheat flour for pancakes or brownies.

Buckwheat is a super sustainable crop because it thrives in a number of climates and doesn’t mind low rainfall and low temperatures. Its cultivation requires little in the way of resources, no pesticides and you can grow it on low-quality soils.


Locally-grown seasonal fruit

Fruit is needed for vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy hydration. However, what’s sustainable depends on where you live. Buying apples grown in an established orchard near you or picking blackberries are definitely some of the most sustainable choices. It’s a good idea to eat only seasonal fruit and avoid fruits imported from the other side of the world. If you can, freeze fresh fruit in summer for later use.

It’s impossible to have a perfect diet but we can try to do our best to benefit our health and that of the planet knowing, that by being vegan, we’re on the best path.


About the author
Veronika Prošek Charvátová
Veronika Prošek Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. Veronika has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.

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