Some thoughts about food, health, and the environment

The most environmentally-friendly diet seems to be a vegan one, right? But it’s challenging to eat a nutritionally complete and healthy diet without any animal products. Plus, y’know, animals are delicious which makes me crave meat despite my qualms whenever I eat pork and then think about Charlotte’s Web.

Environmentally friendly is also a very multifaceted goal. Reducing greenhouse gas emission is one major goal, and that includes both any gases produced by the food itself, and by the process of producing it and shipping it to the consumer. Land usage that displaces natural habitats for animals and plants is another issue. Energy consumption is an issue, related to but somewhat separate from that of greenhouse gas production. Water usage is relevant, especially in parts of the world where clean water is scarce. And, there are tangential issues – like accumulation of plastic wastes. On the one hand, some types of food tend to be packaged in plastic, which makes that problem worse; on the other extreme, some novel food sources might offer a chance to break down excess plastics and reduce that problem.

Insects might fill some of the gap. Since many people have an emotional aversion to eating things that look like insects (except, of course, for shrimp, lobster, and crawfish), the best path seems to process them in some way that doesn’t resemble the source material. Come to think of it, we do the same with larger food animals. It seems that fat extracted from insects is palatable in baking products (original study here), and of a composition that should be healthier than most animal fats. This study used black soldier fly larvae, which I’ve encountered in my compost bin – they are ugly things, so voracious that you can actually hear them eating, and they will reduce the compost bin contents down in a remarkably short time. These have already been under study as a strategy for biowaste reduction. Insect protein has also been incorporated into foods, some of which are already commercially available – such as cricket flour, sold as pasta, energy bars, and more.

Environmentally, insect-based foods have some big advantages. They can feed off of waste materials, which means they can help with trash reduction. It even appears that some insects can consume products thought toxic, without dying or themselves becoming toxic, as with this experiment where mealworms were able to consume polystyrene foam containing toxic flame retardant materials. Their rapid reproductive cycle and growth rate means a lot of food can be produced in a fairly small space, and they produce much less greenhouse gas than larger food animals. They can be produced locally pretty much anywhere, which reduces the environmental impact of food transportation. When you take into account the effects of transport and fertilizer and pesticides and farm equipment, insects appear competitive with plants as a food source.

On the topic of producing good food out of bad garbage, there’s also mushrooms. Apparently some fungi, including oyster mushrooms, can digest plastics without retaining any toxic chemicals. That could certainly be a game-changer. However, this field is still pretty new and many questions would need to be resolved for this to be a net-positive food source.

On other fronts, milk. This article questions whether a dairy-heavy diet is a good thing at all. The US dietary recommendations include several daily servings of dairy. The recently-revised Canadian recommendations do not include dairy as a separate category, instead lumping milk in with other possible protein sources. It seems likely that politics played a big role in the American version. Since the dairy industry is pretty awful for the environment, it makes a lot of sense to look at alternative sources of calcium, vitamin D, and protein – like mushrooms, and leafy greens, both of which can usually be produced locally. Though some of the alternatives to milk, like almond milk, can have their own environmental problems.

So, those are a few things I’ve read about recently that could change the way we do food for the better. Food for thought, as they say!

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