No one could say that eating a healthy, balanced diet isn’t a good idea. Fresh fruits and vegetables, carefully selected and flavorful spices, a variety of nuts, oils and grains that have an impressive roster of benefits… all are wonderful parts of a healthy meal and a healthy life.
Like fashion or music, certain foods can be trendier than others. Recently, foods such as a quinoa, kale, and Greek yogurt have been enjoying a lot of time in the spotlight (and are featured in many popular recipes) thanks to their nutritious qualities and great flavor. Kale has become an essential part of morning smoothies, quinoa can be tossed into salads or baked into breads, and Greek yogurt makes a delicious snack topped with a bit of fresh fruit.
However, these food trends that seem so perfect and healthy do, in fact, come at a price (and we don’t just mean the high prices at the grocery store). The sheer popularity and in some cases overconsumption of these foods is actually responsible for some serious problems for the environment and is even posing challenges to the very people who are responsible for bringing the foods to your table.
Although no one should be discouraged from incorporating healthy and delicious ingredients into their daily meals, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how the popularity of certain foods – no matter how healthy and delicious they might be – has effected the environment and people elsewhere in the world.
Often called a “superfood,” quinoa has been touted as a miracle grain because of its wholesome properties. Since it is high in protein and lacks gluten, it’s an excellent ingredient for those who have special dietary needs. It was originally domesticated in the Andean region of South America thousands of years ago and is an important part of the diets of the people in that area. As quinoa has become increasingly popular in the United States, Canada, Europe and China, the crop values of quinoa have increased dramatically. There have been some suggestions that the rising prices of the crop, while it can provide a good income to some farmers, can make it harder for many locals who once depended on quinoa as an essential part of their diet to afford. There is reason for concern that local populations are starting to substitute lower-nutrient foods such as rice, corn or wheat in their meals because they can buy those ingredients cheaply, whereas it costs them too much money to hold on to quinoa, which demands such high prices on the market. In addition, since the areas where quinoa traditionally grows tend to be very remote, at high altitude and in arid regions, it can be difficult for the local populations to grow many other crops or bring in other foods to supplement their diets.
Greek yogurt has exploded in popularity in the past few years because of its health benefits, its versatility in recipes and, of course, its good taste. However, it has been reported that for every four ounces of milk used in the production of the yogurt only one ounce becomes edible and the rest becomes acid whey, which could pollute the environment. This whey is so acidic that it cannot just be poured back into the ground, and if it is sent into a sewer system, it could eventually harm fish because it depletes oxygen levels in lakes and rivers. In 2008, a factory in Ohio accidentally released acidic whey, resulting in the death of over 5,000 fish in a nearby river. Scientists are still figuring out what to do with this dangerous byproduct of Greek yogurt production. At the moment, acid whey is being given to farmers, who mix it into livestock feed and fertilizer. Until a better solution is provided, however, the whey poses a significant obstacle for yogurt producers and a big threat to the environment.
Although kale boasts many health benefits including being chock-full of antioxidants and vitamins, it contains something that is far less desirable: chemical residues. Kale is one of the “dirtiest” foods in terms of being high in pesticide residue because crops of are often heavily sprayed with pesticides in order for them to grow. Of course, all vegetables that are brought home from the market should always be washed, especially those that frequently appear on the “dirtiest” produce lists. On another health note, Kale, along with other cruciferous vegetables including cabbage and broccoli, has been shown to cause hypothyroidism in animals, perhaps warranting caution by some. Though it’s far from a dangerous item to consume, it’s a good reminder that there can always be too much of a good thing and it might be worth switching out kale for another green every once in a while.
Rice flour, rice noodles, rice milk… rice is a staple ingredient in diets around the world. It’s also a key ingredient for many who need to eat gluten free or dairy free, since traditional wheat flour or milk can often be substituted with rice flour or rice milk in recipes. Unfortunately for the planet, the process of growing rice requires a substantial amount of fresh water. Although scientists are currently working on ways to grow more rice that requires less water consumption, there’s no way to get around the fact that rice will most likely always require a lot of fresh water to grow. It’s also worth noting that mother nature isn’t the only one who could potentially suffer from the over-consumption of rice: the grain might eventually pose health problems to people who eat it too often, since rice often contains high levels of arsenic.
Sushi and seafood
Although a lot of seafood is healthy, some seafood is very harmful to the planet. 70% of the world’s fisheries are either fully or over exploited, depleted or in the process of collapsing. Fish such as Bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon have been overfished and may soon make an appearance on endangered species lists. Overfishing threatens not only the species that have been overfished, but is also a risk to other fish that are higher up in the food chain. Overfishing also contributes to a decrease in biodiversity. Fortunately for consumers, there are eco-ratings available on seafood packages to provide a guide for which types of seafood are friendlier to the planet.
Foods from faraway
There are health benefits to be gained from eating many different ingredients from around the world. Exotic fruits and vegetables, rare and unique nuts, grains and spices shipped to our local grocery stores from around the world can expose our bodies to healthy nutrients that they might never have been able to benefit from otherwise. However, food that is made available to consumers from very far away requires significant fossil fuel consumption to get it from the farm or producer to the table. Moreover, some foods rapidly lose their nutrients the longer they spend in transit on the oceans, in the air or on the roads. It’s also worth keeping in mind that workers in faraway lands could have picked, produced or packaged the foods under unfair or unethical working conditions that would not be present in the consumer’s own country. If any of these factors are a concern, it would be best to avoid foods that have traveled too far and instead opt to consume foods grown or produced much closer to home whenever possible.