What Makes Food Sustainable Or Unsustainable?

By Adriane Marie •  Updated: 11/22/22 •  4 min read
sustainable shopping, for eco friendly brands and products good for the environment

What makes food sustainable or unsustainable? There are several factors to consider when determining if a particular ingredient or food is sustainable or unsustainable. HEALabel uses the following criteria when analyzing the environmental impact of food and ingredients.

Factors That Determine If Food Is Sustainable Or Unsustainable

Water Footprints

water footprints of food and products

Check out this water footprint of foods list to see more specific examples!

Carbon Footprints

Carbon footprint data may include emissions generated from:

Check out this carbon footprint of foods list to see specific examples!

Other Forms Of Environmental Destruction

side effects of seafood, unsustainable food that pollutes oceans with plastic

It’s not just water footprints and carbon footprints that determine whether a food is eco-friendly…we need to consider everything. Here are some forms of environmental destruction that will make a food ‘unsustainable’ even if it has a low water footprint and low carbon footprint…

Examples Of Sustainable Food

In theory, the most sustainable form of food production would be growing vegetables from your garden at home! This would involve no transportation, no energy-intensive or pollution-emitting machinery or equipment, no packaging or processing, no pesticides, chemicals, etc. and consist of seasonal crops. If your garden produce were able to grow using only natural sunlight and rainwater, the foods yielded would virtually have an extremely low water footprint and carbon footprint, if any at all!

While growing food in your own garden at home is not possible or realistic for many of us, the next best option for sustainable food is to buy organic plant foods, seasonally and locally grown. Farmer’s markets are a great place to shop sustainably.

To summarize, sustainable foods are typically unprocessed, whole plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices that are as seasonal, local with minimal or no packaging. Plant foods tend to require the least amounts of water, emit lower amounts of carbon and are typically all around more sustainable.

Examples Of Unsustainable Food

Livestock products like meat, dairy and eggs are more resource intensive and here’s why… Animals need food and freshwater throughout their lives. Animals equal manure. And most farm animal manure cannot become rich top-soil, as many incorrectly imagine. Instead it pollutes soil, water and the air. As we now know nutritionally we do not need animals or animal products to be part of a healthy diet. Therefore, if consumers eat plant foods directly it eliminates the “middle man” or animal rather, and we don’t need to spend valuable resources maintaining diets of animals. Instead of growing corn, soy, oats and wheat crops to feed to animals, it is more energy efficient, time efficient and cost efficient to eat those foods ourselves.

However, there may be some exceptions if only comparing water footprints or carbon footprints. For instance, when looking at water footprints of food, you’ll notice vanilla beans are at the top of the list. It requires more water to produce vanilla beans than it does any other food, including beef, which is a notoriously water intensive food. But one can’t make a meal out of vanilla beans, whereas beef is consumed quite often as a main course in many households around the world.

That’s why some footprint lists prefer to calculate water used or carbon emitted “per calorie” or even “per nutrient” yielded rather than “per the weight (kilogram or pound)” of food.

Because of odd exceptions like vanilla beans, cloves and other spices we cannot say that all animal foods (meat, dairy, seafood, eggs, etc.) have the highest water footprints and carbon footprints. But as a general rule of thumb, most meat such as lamb and pork are very high up on the list.

Why it’s important to consider all factors

As we’ve learned above, it’s not just water footprints and carbon footprints that determine whether a food is eco-friendly…there are many other important aspects to analyze the environmental impact of food.

That’s why HEALabel considers all factors to determine whether a food is sustainable or unsustainable.

Adriane Marie

Hi, I'm Adriane, creator of HEALabel! I organize info for you to comprehensively see how purchases impact health, environment, animals and laborers. Stay aware because you care! Subscribe below to get my weekly newsletter with tips, new info and other ethical consumer insight.