What are Eco Foods?

[ This article is part of our series of articles on sustainable food and eating ]

By some accounts the production of food is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, responsible for 26% of these globe warming gasses. The growing recognition of this fact is driving increased demand for so-called eco foods. But what exactly are eco foods, why are they becoming increasingly popular, and which ones are worth a try? In this article we’ll define eco-foods, discuss the reasons for their increasing popularity, and highlight 5 examples to try.

What are eco foods?

Eco foods is a colloquial term used to describe ecologically and environmentally friendly foods. There is no single strict definition of the term, but rather it encompasses a category of foods which are described as having a lower environmental impact. Their decreased impact can be attributable to an array of factors. The term is often applied based on the way in which foods are produced. Foods which are produced with low or no added chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, or fungicides are often described as eco foods. Additionally, the term has been applied to foods which require lower inputs of water or energy, thereby decreasing the resource intensity of their production and associated climate impact. Occasionally, the term is also applied to foods which produce fewer emissions when they are discarded. As long as there is an aspect of environmental or ecological friendliness in the lifecycle of the food, it can be described as an eco food. The breadth of the definition is important to recognize, since just how “eco” eco foods are can vary widely.

Why are eco foods becoming more popular?

There is a growing awareness of the tremendous environmental impact of food production. It’s not so surprising if you think about it. All 8.0 billion people in the world need to eat and that requires a huge amount of food. There are few goods as widely produced and consumed as food. When you consider everything that goes into producing enough food for the global population: water that is pumped and used, agricultural machines used to plow and harvest, transportation from farm to factory and beyond, and energy inputs into processing facilities, it’s a gargantuan effort. Due to the growing awareness of the environmental impact of food production and increasing urgency around the issue of climate change, individuals around the world are looking for ways in which they can reduce their own emissions. Combine that with an increased desire to eat healthy, more natural foods and the movement toward eco foods has strong tailwinds fueling its growth.

What are some examples of eco foods?

There are a vast number of so-called eco foods, below are just a few examples to contemplate.

  1. Legumes, which include beans, lentils, and pulses, are one of the most popular eco foods on the market. They require relatively little water, growing them improves soil quality, so it requires less fertilizer, and they have a high yield. They’re also a great source of protein and vitamin B12. When compared to alternative sources of these nutrients, such as meat, their environmental impact is dramatically lower.
  2. Molluscs, which include mussels, oysters, clams, and scallops, are another heavy hitter on the environmentally friendly list of foods. These bivalves are great at removing carbon from the atmosphere and purifying water. The farming of molluscs also requires a relatively low level of energy inputs. Take for example the production of mussels, which can be as simple as lowering ropes into the ocean, allowing them to attach, and then coming back 2-3 years later to harvest them.
  3. Bison is an interesting example of a more ecologically friendly meat than its more traditional counterparts of beef or pork. While meat in general is still going to be less eco friendly than plant based foods, mainly because it takes a large amount of land, water, and energy to raise, there are appreciable differences among the different types. The way in which Bison graze is lighter on the land than cows and as they trample the land it can actually help restore vegetation. With more of the global population entering the middle class the demand for red meat is higher than ever and Bison may be a good source of more eco friendly meat.
  4. Leafy greens are one of the healthiest things humans can eat. Aside from their health benefits they can also be grown in a wide range of conditions, are relatively easy to produce in large quantities, and have a very high yield relative to the amount of inputs required to grow them. Whether you’re a lover of kale, spinach, lettuce, arugula, or another member of the leafy green family, incorporating this food into your diet on a regular basis isn’t only good for your health, it’s good for the planet too.
  5. Mushrooms are having a moment and it’s probably in no small part because they’re good for the earth. There are over 2,000 edible types of mushrooms that are known, and likely more still to be discovered, so there’s no lack of variety for this eco food. Mushrooms are one of the least fussy food items to grow, requiring very little land, water, energy and other inputs relative to the amount of calories and nutrients they provide. Mushrooms can be produced using byproducts and waste from other agricultural processes and the soil they are grown in can be upcycled into potting soil after harvesting. 

Wrapping up eco foods

We hope this article provided you with useful insights into what eco foods are and why they’re increasingly popular, as well as giving you some inspiration for specific eco food to try. Here’s to happy (eco) eating!


Data visualization and underlying data is sourced from: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2022) - "Environmental Impacts of Food Production". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food' [Online Resource]

Related Articles

Are you interested in reducing your food waste, saving time, and money? Check out our app. We create personalized meal plans that consider your budgetary, dietary, taste, and cooking preferences, incorporate ingredients you have on hand, and generate easy to use grocery lists that don’t break the bank.

Apple App Store Download ButtonGoogle Play Download Button