5 Foods You Might Not Have Realised Are Actually Pretty Terrible For Our Planet

Contributor: Jemima Skelley

Finally, we’re all pretty much on the same page when it comes to the environment and sustainability – we each just have to do the best we can. We’ve invested in metal straws, and try really hard to remember our reusable totes.

Now it’s time to turn attention to our diets. It’s no shocker that meat has a terrible environmental impact, and in a perfect world we’d all be cutting down our animal consumption. But there are a couple of other silent killers that you need to look out for next time you’re at the grocery store.

1. Almonds (And Almond Milk)

Good old almond milk, which paved the way for a whole array of trendy nut milks and non-dairy alternatives. Over the last ten years it’s worked its way into cafes around Australia, and the almond milk latte has become a favourite drink choice of inner-city coffee drinkers. Surely a non-dairy alternative has to be better for the planet than cow milk, right? Well, that’s where you might be wrong.

You see, almonds take a LOT of water to produce. Way more than most other crops. For 100mL of almond milk (not even enough for a latte), you need 100 litres of water. That’s an insanely low yield ratio. Plus 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, an area that’s almost constantly in drought.

What can you do? Keep an eye out for brands that use only Aussie-grown almonds in their milk. That way you’re also cutting down on transport emissions that come from shipping the nuts all around the world.

2. Chocolate

I’m so sorry to be coming for chocolate like this. It really is with a heavy heart that I gotta tell you that chocolate can have some pretty terrible ecological impacts.

About 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown in West Africa,, and it’s a slow process. It can take about a year to make enough for a block of chocolate, and rising temperatures and less rainfall are slowing it down even more. Thanks to growing demand worldwide for chocolate, local farmers are having to clear more and more tropical rainforest to plant cocoa trees.

In the last fifty years over 90% of the Ivory Coast’s forests have been destroyed, mostly for cocoa plantations. And the local growers are being stiffed, they only receive about 6% of a chocolate bar’s sale price compared to the 80% made by manufacturers and sellers.

Another huge issue here is child labour – the countries where cocoa is grown rely heavily on children to help plant, harvest, and transport the beans. We’re talking millions of children, forced to do labour-intensive farm work instead of going to school.

Thankfully, there’s been a bit of progress made with chocolate technology – new farming techniques are being introduced to boost productivity and reduce the amount of farms needed.

What can you do? In future, try to buy ethically-produced chocolate. It costs a bit more, but then maybe you’ll be less likely to accidentally eat a whole block while mindlessly watching Netflix.

3. Avocados

Avocados have the potential to be bad, but only if you’re not diligent when buying them. While it’s not up there on the same level as almonds, avocado production has a pretty big impact on the environment. They take a lot of water, energy, fertiliser, and pesticides for production. And since avocados have become pretty trendy over the last decade, demand has skyrocketed.

But the real kicker is the transport. Luckily, we have plenty of avo farms here in Australia so, they don’t have too far to go.

What can you do? If you were living in the UK or Canada then we’d say try to limit your avocado consumption, but here in Australia just try to be mindful. Make sure you’re buying local produce, which most supermarkets stock anyway.

4. Sugar

We all know that sugar’s bad for us. We’ve seen the books and documentaries and endless articles about how refined sugar is rotting us from the inside out. Well it turns out that sugar’s pretty damn bad for the planet as well.

Just like almonds, it takes a lot of water to produce sugar cane. But the real issue lies in how much sugar we’re consuming. Sugarcane is grown in over 120 countries worldwide, and in a lot of those places natural forests have been cleared to make room for it. Most of these places tend to farm the crops with chemicals and pesticides that are truly terrible for the environment.

Sure, there are some countries and areas where sugar is farmed sustainability and in a way that doesn’t harm local habitats. But chances are that most of the sugar we’re all consuming  is in processed food that uses the cheapest raw ingredients possible.

What can you do? Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to completely give up sugar and just snack on fruit instead. We know how good a Slurpee is on a hungover summer day. But it’s good to be mindful about how much sugar we’re all consuming, and where it’s coming from.

5. Palm Oil

Palm oil is bad. We’ve been told this for years but I, for one, have no idea why. It’s just one of those things, like high fructose corn syrup, that I knew was evil without knowing what it really was.

So let’s find out why. First of all, it’s pretty bad for your health. It’s super high in saturated fat, which messes with your cholesterol levels and can cause heart issues. But it’s even worse for the environment.

Palm trees grow naturally in tropical areas, but it’s a really efficient and cost effective crop so entrepreneurial people have been trying to plant it all over the world. Millions of hectares of national forests have been burned to make way for palm oil plantations – in Indonesia alone, 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared for palm oil production EVERY HOUR. Not only are local animal habitats completely wiped out by this, but the smoke from the fire fills the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, accelerating the rate of climate change.

Palm oil is versatile as hell. It’s used in everything, nearly half of all household products in Australia contain it. Chocolate, soap, biscuits, nut butter, shampoo… you name it. It used to just be labelled in ingredient lists as “vegetable oil” but new laws require companies to disclose the use of palm oil.

What can you do? Some palm oil responsibly produced, from plantations which take care to not harm the natural environment. So rather than trying to completely cut it out, just be aware of which companies are using “dirty palm oil”. Most safe products will be branded with “responsibly-sourced palm oil”, so just be sure to read your labels.

Jemima Skelley is a freelance writer. She tweets at @jemimaskelley.