Most experts agree that eating a diet based largely on plant foods is healthier not just for our bodies, but also for the planet. For about 3 percent of Americans, the choice, then, is clear: Follow a vegetarian diet. But what if you care about your health and the environment, and prefer to include some protein from animal sources in your diet?
To help you make more informed choices at the store, Delicious Living took a close look at the eco-impact of common protein sources—both plant and animal—and chose our favorite recipes to match. The bottom line: The simplest way to reduce environmental impact is to eat less resource-intensive meat, especially beef. And when you do eat meat, be choosy about where it comes from and how it’s raised. Buying organic, pastured, locally raised meat whenever possible makes a big difference—and sends a message about consumer priorities to factory-farm producers.
What does this mean in your kitchen? If you’ve traditionally relied on meat entrées, try branching out with recipes that include hearty plant proteins like beans, soy, and lentils. And remember, you may be eating more protein than you need: One 6-ounce chicken portion, for instance, nearly meets the average woman’s daily protein needs of 55 grams, as determined by the USDA.
Pros: Legume crops get nitrogen from the atmosphere, so they don’t need chemical fertilizers to help them grow. In fact, legumes can boost soil fertility by putting nitrogen back into the soil.
Cons: Most U.S. growers of these crops use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to help boost yields and combat weeds and pests. So when possible, buy organic.
Bottom line: An excellent—and inexpensive—eco-choice
Chili con Tempeh (right)
Spiced Chickpea and Feta Sandwiches
Hijiki-Chickpea Stew with Cauliflower and Greens
Moroccan-Style Chickpeas with Couscous
Sweet Potato & Chickpea Chole
Gluten-Free Red Lentil Soup
Green Lentils and Seasoned Walnuts
Red lentil dal
Pantry-Ready Black-Bean Soup
African Red Beans and Couscous
Tuscan Beans and Greens
Black Bean Enchiladas
Cannellini with Leeks and Golden Beets
Pros: When consumed directly—not diverted to animal feed—soybeans and soy-based foods have a relatively modest environmental footprint. Organic soy trumps conventional: It’s never genetically modified (GMO) and is grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Cons: Some 90 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans are now GMO, and instead of requiring fewer chemicals—as originally promised—spraying of glyphosate (such as Monsanto’s Roundup) on U.S. soybean crops increased an alarming 98 percent from 1996 to 2006, according to a 2009 report by The Organic Center. The reason: increasingly resistant superweeds that shrug off glyphosate.
Soybean crops also contribute (along with corn) to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, a vast area choked with nitrogen fertilizer runoff dumped by the Mississippi River.
Bottom line: Substitute soy for meat, and choose organic.
Arame Salad with Seared Tofu and red peppers (right)
Grilled Tofu with Portobellos
Tofu and Soba Noodle Salad with Sesame-Citrus Dressing
Carmelized Tofu and Avocado Sushi Rolls
Coconut-Seared Tofu with Bok Choy and Shiitakes
Chia Crusted Tofu with Cauliflower Mash
Tofu and Spinach in Peanut-Coconut Sauce
Indian-Seasoned Tofu with Tomatoes
Asian Tofu in Butter Lettuce Wraps
Roasted Squash, Tofu, and Spinach Salad
Grilled Ratatoulle with Tofu
Classic Miso Soup with Tofu
Pros: Despite immense pressure on wild fisheries and the negative eco-impact of some fishing methods, fish rank as a more environmentally friendly choice than land-based animals. “Captured, or wild, fish win on every imaginable metric—energy use, water consumption, pollution, fertilizer, antibiotics, and pesticides,” says Ray Hilborn, PhD, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Even farmed salmon transform feed into protein more efficiently than chickens do, while using a fraction of the land area, says Hilborn—though he notes their fish-meal feed does have a marine footprint.
Cons: Because of rising demand coupled with unsustainable management of many wild fisheries, about half of ocean fish stocks are being harvested at full capacity, and another 19 percent are overfished, according to a 2009 UN report.
Farm-raised fish remain plentiful but often grow in crowded conditions, doused with antibiotics and pesticides. Species, like salmon, raised in open-water ocean pens pollute surrounding waters. And shrimp production in Asia—the source of 70 percent of the shrimp Americans consume—has destroyed many coastal mangrove forests.
Fortunately, some progress is afoot. Natural grocery stores and environmental groups have joined forces to improve fish farming, and the World Wildlife Fund is creating an eco-certification for farmed seafood. And thanks to pressure from U.S. buyers, some Asian shrimp farmers have turned to inland operations that recycle water rather than farming along sensitive coastal areas.
Bottom line: Choose fish the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch regional guides (montereybayaquarium.org) highlight as good (or best) choices. Or look for the blue Certified Sustainable Seafood label from the Marine Stewardship Council. When choosing farmed fish, swap salmon for noncarnivorous fish that can be raised in nonpolluting enclosed ponds, such as tilapia and catfish.
Sustainable seafood recipes:
Parchment-Wrapped Pacific Halibut with Asparagus, Tomatoes, and Mustard-Dill Sauce (right)
Clams and Snap Peas with Ginger-Lemongrass Broth
Roasted Rainbow Trout with Rosemary, Spinach, and Pine Nuts
Tamari-Glazed Cod with Cucumber-Radish Salad
Shrimp, Avocado, and Tomato Salad with Potatoes Vinaigrette
Blackened Shrimp Tacos with Vegetable Slaw
Tilapia, Jicama, and Fennel Salad
Panko-Crusted Catfish with Garlic Chard
Pan Seared Tilapia with Blackberry Sauce
Pecan-Crusted Catfish with Remoulade
Pros: Chickens raised outdoors on a pasture diet remain one of the best animal-based eco-choices. They consume less fossil fuel–intensive feed, and their waste fertilizes farmland. Buying certified organic chicken and eggs helps keep harmful chemicals and antibiotics out of your body and the environment, but, as with pork and beef, there’s no regulatory guarantee they haven’t been produced in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), where animals are kept in a small area.
Eggs rank as more sustainable than chicken for the simple reason that, while one broiler yields a chicken breast and two thighs, the average hen produces 500 eggs during her lifetime.
Cons: To prevent the outbreak of disease in crowded, confined spaces—most U.S. chicken and eggs come from barns housing tens of thousands of birds—producers routinely give antibiotics to broiler chickens and hens, a practice the FDA links to increased antibiotic resistance on farms and possibly among humans. And like cattle and hogs, these chickens eat a diet of mostly corn and soybeans, both grown with a heavy fossil fuel reliance.
Bottom line: Eat plenty of eggs but chicken in moderation, and look for pastured chicken and eggs, although that label term remains unregulated. Organically raised birds aren’t exposed to pesticides or antibiotics, and there’s no arsenic in their feed.
Organic egg and chicken recipes:
Egg Curry on Brown Rice Egg Salad with Tarragon Ravigote Moroccan-Style Egg Soup Spinach Salad with Eggs and Watercress Dressing
Grilled Escarole with Soft-Poached Eggs (right)
Pasta Salad with Chicken, Fennel, and Feta
Saffron-Scented Chicken with Rice, Eggplant, and Cauliflower
Chicken with Orange-Ginger Sauce
Chicken with Herb Cheese and Tomatoes
Pros: The jury’s still out on whether organic dairy cows, which the USDA now requires to spend at least four months a year grazing on pasture, really have an environmental edge on their conventional counterparts, which produce milk more “efficiently” due to more frequent milkings. But one thing’s clear: Organic cows, which eat organic feed and are not given artificial hormones, are healthier. According to a 2010 report by The Organic Center, organic cows live up to two years longer and give milk through four or more lactation periods, more than twice that of conventionally raised cows.
Cons: Because cow milk, cheese, and yogurt come from resource-hogging cattle (see Beef, below), dairy’s eco-impact is second only to beef. Lactating cows also need lots of water—22 liters a day each for drinking and 115 more for cleaning barns, according to the UN livestock report.
Bottom line: Limit dairy consumption and choose organic versions. Include nondairy alternatives such as almond, soy, rice, coconut, and hemp milks.
Pros: Smaller beef ranches practice grass feeding. Although eating pasture actually causes cattle to emit more methane than grain feeding, it requires less water, doesn’t add chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or added antibiotics to the environment, and doesn’t create polluting manure lagoons. Organic beef cattle are fed organic feed, eat pasture for four months a year, and don’t get routine antibiotics, but operation size is not regulated.
Cons: No matter how you slice it, beef is the Hummer of protein-rich foods. Belching and farting cows produce more methane—a powerful greenhouse gas—than other animals; they also consume more water and energy-intensive grains. According to USDA estimates, it takes 6.3 pounds of feed to generate 1 pound of beef, compared with 2.8 pounds for the same amount of pork and 1.95 pounds for chicken.
Cattle also require lots of land for grazing (which has fueled rampant deforestation in Central and South America), and in the United States they spend six months prior to slaughter in CAFOs. Because of the mountains of manure they generate, CAFOs have become notorious water- and air-pollution sources.
One positive note: Some large-scale U.S. producers have reduced energy use by capturing methane and burning manure for power.
Bottom line: Eat beef less often and in smaller portions. For example, make a beef stir-fry with plenty of vegetables rather than eating a big steak. Eating just 1 pound less of beef a month saves more than 1,800 gallons of water, along with reducing the impacts above. It’s a good idea to research local ranchers to learn their practices.
Cons: When it comes to manure, pigs make up a class of their own. “They produce more waste per pound than any other farm animal and three times more than humans,” says Kari Hamerschlag, a senior agriculture analyst at Environmental Working Group.
On CAFOs with 30,000 or more pigs, that effluent, which contains hazards such as ammonia, phosphorus, hydrogen sulfide, cyanide, nitrates, and heavy metals, may be more likely to contaminate surrounding air and water, contributing to an array of health problems. A study in Pediatrics found 24 percent more asthma symptoms among teenagers in hog-heavy North Carolina at schools where livestock odor was noticeable indoors at least twice a month, compared with those with no odor
Pros: Pigs convert feed into protein more efficiently than beef and need much less land, so pork’s a better eco-choice than beef. And smaller pork operations—those with fewer than 700 hogs—generate more manageable amounts of manure. Certified organic producers take chemical pesticides and fertilizers and antibiotics out of the eco-equation, but the USDA’s organic program doesn’t regulate operation size.
Bottom line: Eat pork sparingly, and whenever possible buy from smaller or organic producers.
Animal-based protein sources are considered “complete” because they contain all nine essential amino acids—those the body can't make and needs to get through food. Plant-based protein sources are usually limited in one or more essential amino acids, with some exceptions, such as soy and quinoa. Vegetarians can easily combine protein sources to get all necessary aminos.
Melanie Warner is a Boulder, Colorado–based freelance writer who covers food and green business. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, and Fortune, and online at BNET.