10 Environmentally-Friendly Proteins…that Actually Taste Good

Sinclair, Cambria. “Alternate Proteins / Nuts. Beans. Lentils.” 2020. jpg file.

Written by Mayella Vasquez | Edited By: Jessica Tishue & Carol Coutinho

October 8, 2020

Food is a huge part of our daily lives.  However, in many cases, the way we produce it contributes to the environment’s decline.  One of the most significant impacts of food products are greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of energy.  While there are more eco-friendly options, there is no perfect food, and it more often than not leaves behind a carbon footprint. 

If you’d like to learn more, click here for a guide on the Carbon Footprint of Food.  

At every meal, we are faced with the decision of catering either to the environment or our taste buds. These two goals need not be mutually exclusive. One way to be green is by finding different alternatives to meet our daily protein needs, which can be found in the list below. Since saving the world can also be delicious, each food comes with recipes you should try today!

#1 LEGUMES (Pulses)

The term “legume” is used to describe the seeds of the pods of plants like beans, peas, and lentils. Some of the most common legumes include chickpeas, soybeans, and peanuts. (1)  

Regardless of your choice of legume, they are all known to be protein-packed and rich in fiber.  Specifically, lentils deliver twice the amount of protein per serving than quinoa. (2) Pulses also have three times more fiber than brown rice, and one half-cup serving of black beans contains more iron than a 3-ounce flank steak.  (3) (4)  (5)  Additionally, they are a source of potassium, abundant in antioxidants, and are naturally sodium and gluten free.  

Legumes are also the most affordable proteins around the world. According to data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost for a serving of lentils is $0.10, as compared to $1.49 for a serving of beef, $0.73 for a serving of pork, or $0.63 for a serving of chicken. (6)

Environmental Impact: 

Pulses are hailed as one of the most sustainable proteins in the world because, compared to other types, these need only one-tenth the amount of water to grow, while also being drought and frost resistant.  Legume crops absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers. They further boost soil fertility by putting nitrogen back into the soil.  (7) (8) Hence, pulses have a lower carbon footprint than almost any other food group.

That being said, legumes are a bit controversial because they are gas-producing foods which can cause digestive trouble. They contain the same anti-nutrients present in grains: phytates and lectins. Click here to learn more. 

Take Away:

Though slightly problematic, legumes are a great source of proteins and fiber, while also beneficial for the environment.  However, when possible, buy organic since  most U.S. growers use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to help boost yields and combat weeds and pests.  (8)


  1. Beet Burgers 
  2. Gluten-free hummus  
  3. Click Here for the complete list of Bean and Legume Recipes

Fun FactThomas Jefferson grew 30 different kinds of peas in his garden.



Eggs are another environment friendly protein,  rich in iron, Vitamin A, D, E, B12, Folate, Selenium, Lutein, Zeaxanthin, Choline and antioxidants.  Through eggs you consume the nutrients required to strengthen your bones and eyes, promote cell regeneration and prevent the breakdown of tissue.  (9)

Environmental Impact: 

The ecological impact of chickens depends on the treatment of the animal.  Chickens that are raised outdoors on a natural pasture diet are one of the best animal-based eco-choices.  They consume what is available on the land, and thus their feed is less fossil fuel-intensive, and their waste fertilizes farmland. 

Conversely, chickens which are kept in overcrowded small spaces, are given antibiotics to prevent the outbreak of contagious diseases that could spread among other animals housed in the barn.   The FDA linked this practice with increased antibiotic resistance on farms and possibly among humans.   Additionally, chickens housed in this manner rely on a diet comprising mostly of corn and soybeans that have a heavy fossil fuel reliance. (8)

Take Away:

Choosing to buy organic eggs helps keep harmful chemicals and antibiotics outside your body and the environment.  Organically raised birds are not exposed to pesticides or antibiotics, and there’s no arsenic in their feed.  But, choosing organic is not a guarantee that the eggs and the chickens that produced them were not reared in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), i.e. there is no way to know if the animals are being kept in a small area.  Thus, though it is best to look for pastured chicken and eggs, their treatment is not regulated. (8)

Click here to learn about White Oak Pastures, a farm committed to the holistic raising of chickens.  

And Click here to learn more about the egg industry and their work towards sustainability.


  1. Bacon and Leek Deep-Dish Quiche
  2. Croque Madames 
  3. Click here for the complete list of the 35 Best Eggs Recipes

Fun Fact–PETA has made attempts to create animal friendly idioms.   They propose that instead of saying “Kill two birds with one stone,” Americans should say “Feed two birds with one scone.”

#3 CHICKEN        

Chicken is a source of lean, low-fat protein that supports muscle growth and development.  Eating it is also good for heart health, is rich in the essential minerals phosphorus and selenium, Vitamin A, B2, B6, Vitamin B Niacin, helps boost metabolism, and prevents bone loss.  (10)

Environmental Impact:

The chicken industry has taken steps towards being environmentally responsible, by adopting sustainable chicken production practices to  ensure a healthier planet.

Through continuous innovation and by focusing on maintaining the best possible bird health, this industry has reduced its use of water, farmland, electricity, greenhouse gasses, and other valuable resources.  These innovations have demonstrated that the same amount of chicken production today has 50% less impact on the environment than in 1965.  

Click here to read an overview of the specific ways that the chicken industry is evolving to become more sustainable.

Take Away:                                          

It is better to fill up on eggs and chicken in moderation because, while one broiler yields a chicken breast and two thighs, the average hen, on the other hand, produces 500 eggs during her lifetime. (8) 


  1. Creamy Herb Chicken
  2. Honey Garlic Butter Chicken
  3. Click Here for 100 Easy Chicken Recipes   

 Fun Fact–Chicken is a natural antidepressant. Eating some poultry will increase the serotonin amino acid levels in your brain, enhancing your mood, blasting stress, and lulling you to sleep. (10)


Soy products are some of the richest sources of protein in a plant-based diet. Edamame beans (immature soybeans) contain 8.5 g of protein per ½ cup, and tempeh contains about 15 g of protein per ½ cup.  (11)

Firm tofu (soybean curds) contains about 10 g of protein per ½ cup.  Tofu, sometimes called bean curd or soybean curd is a creamy, high-protein, low-fat soy product typically sold in blocks.  An Asian staple, it is also high in calcium and iron. Made from soybeans, water,​ and a coagulant or curdling agent, it absorbs flavors through spices, sauces, and marinades, taking on the flavor of the dish. (12)  It is also often used as a meat and milk substitute. (13)

Environmental Impact:                                                                                                           

When consumed directly, not as animal feed, soybeans, and soy-based foods have a relatively modest ecological footprint. Soybean crops contribute to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, a vast area choked with nitrogen fertilizer runoff dumped by the Mississippi River.

Take Away:

Eating soy is better than eating meat, but it still has a modest environmental impact that one should be aware of.   (14) 

Additionally,  choose organic soy over conventional because, it would not be genetically modified (GMO) and would be grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Click here to learn more about soy. 


  1. Vegetarian chili with tofu   
  2. Tofu triangles with peanut sauce 
  3. Click here for other tofu recipes 

Fun Fact–Tofu is one of the oldest foods in the world.


Fish is a low-fat, high-quality protein with an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins such as D and B2 (riboflavin).  Additionally, fish is rich in calcium and phosphorus and is a great source of minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. (15)

Environmental Impact:     

As the demand for fish continues to rise, and unsustainable practices continue to all the growth of  many wild fisheries, about half of ocean fish stocks are being harvested at full capacity. Additionally, trade and consumption reached a record high in 2018.  (16)

Farm-raised fish remain plentiful but often grow in crowded conditions, which means they are loaded with antibiotics and pesticides. 

Species, like salmon, raised in open-water ocean pens pollute surrounding waters. Shrimp production in Asia, which is also the source of almost all the shrimp Americans consume, is the cause behind the destruction of many coastal mangrove forests. (8)

Click here and here to learn more. 

Take Away:

Some fishing methods have a negative eco-impact, yet fish rank as a more environment friendly alternative than land-based animals. To ensure that your fish is environment friendly, use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to learn which fish are best to eat.   

Also, be on the lookout for the blue Certified Sustainable Seafood label from the Marine Stewardship Council. When choosing farmed fish, swap salmon for non-carnivorous fish that are raised in non-polluting enclosed ponds, such as tilapia and catfish. 

Recipes:  If you’d like to check out a database of sustainable seafood recipes Click here.

Fun Fact– Catfish have over 27,000 taste buds, whereas humans have only 9,000.


Ezekiel bread is a healthier, more nutritional alternative to traditional bread. It is made from barley, wheat, lentils, millet, and spelt providing good amounts of essential nutrients and vitamins.  Each slice offers 4 g of protein on its own, and spreading peanut or almond butter adds to its natural protein power. Ezekiel Bread also is a great bread alternative for vegans and vegetarians, with no eggs, dairy, gelatin, or other animal products added.(17)  

Instead of added sugar or syrups, it uses malted barley as a natural sweetener. With its high amounts of fiber and nutrients, sprouted grain bread has a lesser impact on blood sugar levels than wheat bread.  Because of the sprouting process, it is also a great option for anyone who wants to lower their gluten intake. Sprouting creates more fiber content, protein, essential amino acids, and B vitamins; the amino acids ensure that the bread’s proteins are actually complete proteins, otherwise found only in animal products like eggs or milk. (18)       

Environmental Impact: 

The environmental cost of producing a loaf of bread leans towards the steeper end as, a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions comes from just one of the many steps that go into making that loaf, specifically farming.             

A study was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Sheffield, U.K., who focused on a specific farm, mill and bakery in Lincoln, U.K. From the data collected and analyzed, they found that many stages of production were energy intensive, and involved emissions which includes: growing the wheat, fertilizing it, harvesting the crop, transporting the grains to the mill, grinding the grains into flour, transporting the flour to a bakery and then baking and packaging a loaf of bread.  

The vast majority of emissions, nearly 66 percent, came from growing wheat.  Intriguingly 40 percent of the 66  is attributable just to the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizers alone, which in turn cause a lot of water pollution when they run off into streams and rivers.

In other words, to have eco-friendly bread, consumers can create a  market demand for loaves that use less fertilizer or use organic fertilizer.

Click here to read the full article.                                                                                          

Take Away:   

In addition to taking a stance and encouraging the production of loaves made with less fertilizer, another way to make a positive impact would be to bake your own bread.  By doing so, you are not contributing to the emissions created in the transportation of flour, baking and packaging of bread, as done in bakeries.  

Recipe:  Click here to learn how to make Ezekiel Bread                                                               

(not so) Fun Fact– Feeding bread to ducks actually causes many health problems for them.


Nuts and seeds eaten together, are a healthy alternative to livestock, making it environment friendly.  They are good sources of fat, fiber, and protein, and most of the fat in nuts are monounsaturated fat, as well as omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. (19)  

The current Daily Value (%DV) for protein is 50 grams per day. One ounce (1oz) of nuts or seeds is typically equivalent to a handful, or 2-3 tablespoons. Most nuts provide between 8-18% DV of protein per 1oz handful.  

High protein nuts and seeds include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, cashews, and more. (20) 

Click here for a list of high protein nuts and seeds.

Environmental Impact:                                                                                                        

Choosing between nuts and seeds is a choice about water.  Tree nuts like almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and cashews are actually some of the most water-intensive crops grown today. 

Seeds, on the other hand, have a much lower water footprint and impact on our environment.  Pumpkins, squash, and watermelons require roughly 20 to 90 times less water to grow than tree nuts (excluding rainwater). The water used to grow squash and melons produces both edible flesh and edible seeds. 

With regards to nuts, peanuts are the greenest because they grow below the ground, making them far more water efficient than other nuts. (21)

Take Away:

Both nuts and seeds are better alternatives when it comes to the environment, than meat and other animal products.  However, choosing seeds over nuts (except for peanuts) is a far more eco-conscious decision. (21)


  1. Seed Bars
  2. Pumpkin Seed Brittle 
  3. Click Here for all 45 Recipes 

Fun Fact–Even if a seed is planted upside down, the seedling always grows right-way up. How? Plants can actually sense gravity!


A large baked potato offers 8 g of protein per serving. Potatoes are also high in other nutrients, such as potassium and vitamin C. (11)  Additionally, they contain iron, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and zinc, which help the body to build and maintain bone structure and strength. (22)

Environmental Impact:       

Research has shown that potatoes are good for the environment, and are more sustainable than pasta or rice.

In comparison, paste and rice potatoes were shown to have the lowest levels of greenhouse gas. They also reflected significantly lower levels of overall water usage than rice.

But while potatoes were found to have the least negative impact on the environment, growers can still work to improve the environmental sustainability of their growing operations through good fertilizer management and efficient use of machinery.

Work is being done by Potatoes Australia, an industry-funded magazine, to promote industry research and development while keeping growers and stakeholders in the loop with the latest news. (23)

Click here to learn more about the benefits and here to learn about the disadvantages of potato harvesting.

Take Away:

Vegetables are a better alternative to livestock when it comes to carbon emissions.  However with potatoes, over the years, the increased concern about the environmental impact is the use of agricultural fertilizers, particularly as non-point sources of water pollution.  

Fortunately, potato researchers throughout North America are conducting studies that focus on maintaining or enhancing crop production while reducing potential negative environmental effects. Precision agriculture, cover crops, slow-release fertilizers, and genetic manipulation are key strategies being studied. (24)

Cooking potatoes adds to the energy used in their consumption, ultimately affecting the environment. To learn how to cook in eco-friendly ways, this guide may help.   


  1. Garden Stuffed Baked Potatoes
  2. Perfect Potato Soup
  3. Click Here for 71 Potato Recipes

Fun Fact– French Queen Marie Antoinette gave birth to potato fashion inspired by the bouquet of potatoes she received. The flower instantly became trendy once she made a public appearance with it as decorations to her clothing.


Dark-colored leafy greens and other vegetables contain protein, but alone, these foods are not enough to meet the daily protein requirement. However, when combined with other protein-rich foods, vegetables can be a  wholesome, nutritional meal.  For example, a single, medium stalk of broccoli contains about 4 g of protein, kale offers 2 g of protein per cup, and 5 medium mushrooms offer 3 g of protein which can be easily paired with other food (like those mentioned in this blog 🙂  in a salad. (11)

Click here for 200 Vegetables Highest in Protein.

Environmental Impact: 

Vegetables have a small environmental impact, as they contribute to only 2.6% of the greenhouses gases produced. (25)  In one study, researchers found that red meat was 35 times more damaging to the environment than a bowl of vegetables. (25)   

Take Away:

A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but you don’t need to be vegetarian to do that. Simply switching to less carbon-intensive meat can have a major impact as well; for example, replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds CO2e. (26)


  1. Simple Southern Lima Beans                                                                                         
  2. Kongnamool (Korean Soybean Sprouts)                                                                                      
  3. Click here for 35 High-Protein Vegetarian Meals That Will Keep Your Energy Up

Fun Fact–  Kale is so easy to grow that a group of students at the Indiana Academy of Science, Mathematics, and Humanities decided to grow kale for National Kale Day and planted some seeds. Now they have a kale patch in their courtyard.


Sinclair, Cambria. “Sustainable Milk Alternative – Oat Milk”. 2020. jpg File.



Oat milk is a plant-based dairy milk alternative.  Because it is strained oat, it is missing a lot of nutrients; thus it is fortified with vitamin D, A, and B12, and one glass has 3 grams of protein.  Even so, oat milk is eco-friendly and can be easily included in a protein-rich meal.  (27)

Environmental Impact:

A 200ml glass of oat milk is responsible for around 0.18kg of CO2e, which is slightly more than almond milk, but less than soy or cow’s milk. A liter of oat milk needs about 48 liters of water produced, thus, in terms of water, oat milk has a much lower impact than other kinds of milk, and oats use 80% less land to grow than dairy milk requires.  (28)

Take Away: 

Oat milk, compared to others, has the least impact on the environment, but other non-dairy alternatives such as almond, soy, rice, coconut, and hemp milk are also great.

Recipe: How to make Oat Milk

Fun Fact–75 percent of the American population eat oats for breakfast or keep them in their cupboards. 

Besides these 10 options, supplements or growing your own food are ways to help keep you and our environment healthy.  The key is to start small and become aware of the ways our food system impacts our environment.  

If you like this blog and want to learn more about the ways food systems affect society, check out our “The Untold Story of Food Deserts” blog.  



Related Articles