Can You Change the World by Eating Beet Greens?

The World Wide Fund’s “50 Future Foods” report heralds the list of nutritious, eco-friendly foods can save the planet one meal at a time.  

December 23, 2019

bowl of walnuts and millet with broccoli rabe and mushrooms and leafy greens
amy pennington with bag of rhubarb

By Amy Pennington

Amy Pennington is a Seattle freelance writer and author, writing about food, health, agriculture, gardens & more. Visit her website at amy-pennington.com.

What we choose to eat impacts many things outside of our immediate health. We influence local economies (remember when Community Supported Agriculture produce subscriptions weren’t even a ‘thing’?), ecosystems on both small and large scales, and ultimately the flow of business. Agricultural companies wouldn’t grow so much romaine if we all decided to eat only arugula, after all. Adding to that, current global demands for meat and agricultural land have been linked to a wide swath of negative outcomes from climate change and land degradation to the extinction of several animal species.

To begin to shift trends and cultures around food, many organizations are fast at work hoping to transform our current food system to address these issues. Some are offering plant-based ‘meats’ while others are focused on stackable farms. Earlier this year, Knorr, one of the world’s largest food brands, teamed up with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an independent conservation organization known as the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S., to look at our global food system and the impact it has on the environment. The results of this study, published in February 2019 in the Future 50 Foods report, identified dozens of diverse plant-based foods from around the world that are nutritionally dense and, through the simple act of cultivation, may reduce the environmental impact of our food supply.

By making a conscious choice to consume more of the Future 50 Foods, we take a crucial step towards improving the global food system.

Most of the foods on this list generally require less land or water to grow and may even benefit the environment in some way, like nitrogen-fixing legumes. Consisting of vegetables, grains, cereals, seeds, and nuts from across the globe, Future 50 Foods is also meant to inspire greater variety in what we cook and eat, an important recommendation nutritionist professionals already make. This group of foods takes it to the next level for clients who are interested in how foods are grown, plant-based diets, and the impact they have on the environment.

Ultimately, the intent of the list is to enable important dietary shifts, offering a greater variety of vegetables and starches to increase an individual’s intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; and to provide plant-based sources of protein to replace animal protein. The foods selected also promote agrobiodiversity, the biological diversity found in the collection of plants and animals that make up an agricultural ecosystem. Improving agrobiodiversity is considered a more sustainable practice and helps foods withstand the impacts of climate change.

This all sounds ideal, but here’s the catch: Not all 50 foods are currently easily accessible. Some thrive and are cultivated only in certain parts of the world. But consumer demand can drive supply—money goes where attention flows. In the meantime, some of these ingredients can be found at your everyday grocery store, and most are available at finer grocery stores, health food stores, or online at sites like the popular Thrive Market store.

“By joining together with our partners, we believe we can shift the way food is grown and the foods people choose to eat, delivering significant, positive impact on the food system,” states April Redmond, Global Vice President of Knorr, in the report.

This is important to remember since we all make choices with what we put on our plates every day. Swapping water-dependent staples like corn and white rice for the drought-tolerant African grain fonio or spelt increases the nutrient content of a dish; Introducing plants that require less resources to grow, making our food supply more resilient. Added bonus? It preserves these ancient plant varieties for future generations. By making a conscious choice to consume more of the Future 50 Foods, we take a crucial step towards improving the global food system.

As Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International simply puts it, “Few people have the chance to be a part of truly historic transformations. This is ours.”

15 Common Future Foods

The WWF’s list of 50 Future Foods includes some items you likely have never heard of, whether you’re studying to be a nutritionist or not, and are often only available in parts of the world (Nopales, we’re looking at you.) But the list also includes many familiar ingredients you may already be eating, so regardless of how much of these foods we eat, you can be assured they’re grown sustainably. Start with sampling these ingredients more commonly found in the United States (available increasingly at many grocery stores or an online health food supplier such as Thrive Market) and discover how to incorporate them in your diet.

Greens

Plants that are verdant and green can be counted on for providing nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to our systems.


edible seaweed

Seaweed and algae

Seaweed is a subgroup of algae—a plant that can be found plentifully and naturally growing in both fresh and marine waters, and is a major contributor to global oxygen production. Algae is an incredible source of antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and protein. Spirulina, a blue-green algae, can be found in powder form, making it an easy ingredient to add to smoothies and shakes. Seaweed is often sold dry and can be rehydrated and added to salads or soups.

Okra

Okra is a mucilaginous plant, making it is slimy and gooey in the mouth. This mucilage contains large amounts of soluble fiber making okra a digestive powerhouse of a plant. Okra is an excellent field crop given its resistance to climate change—it is heat– and drought-tolerant. To eat, pair okra with strong, spicy flavors and sauté or stir-fry over high heat to give it some texture.

Beet greens

Beet tops are often thrown away, but no more! Similar in flavor and look to Swiss chard, beet greens are rich in vitamins K and A and contain higher levels of magnesium than mustard or turnip greens and more iron than spinach. Add to this that beets are a rare winter crop that can tolerate cooler climates and can survive frost. To eat, sauté greens with some garlic and serve as a warm side dish, or fold into scrambled eggs for morning vegetable intake.

broccoli rabe

Broccoli rabe

Fast-growing broccoli rabe heads out on a slender stalk and tastes bitter and strong compared to its more commercially available cousin, broccoli. Like arugula, broccoli rabe is peppery and intensely flavored. In Italy, it is commonly sautéed with garlic and oil and tossed with pasta. Broccoli rabe may also be roasted in the oven, which turns its small leaves charred and irresistibly crispy.

pumpkin leaves

Pumpkin leaves

Another crop that has long been over-looked, pumpkin leaves are just as nutritious as the fruit they help to produce every autumn. Harvest young (before leaves turn prickly or bitter) and chop into sautés or fold into brothy soups. Pumpkin leaves are a good source of iron, vitamin K, and carotenoids—the pigment in plants that are thought to help decrease risk of disease.

Grains

We tend to lean into white flour in a typical American diet—sandwich breads, crackers, morning cereals, snacks. Wheat production produces significant greenhouse gas emissions (from field to mill to product, wheat is a heavily transported commodity) and relies on fertilizers, which then contributes to water pollution via run off. And while more and more people are learning about alternative grains like quinoa, globally there are far more grains and cereals to choose from.


Fonio

A fast-growing cereal grain found mostly in Africa, fonio is an environmental wonder plant that is drought-resistant and helps to secure topsoil. With high levels of zinc, magnesium, and phytonutrients, fonio is also gluten-free and can be used as you would oats, couscous, or rice. It’s available online at Thrive Market and recently, Yolélé Foods built the world’s first fonio mill and currently exports fonio to the United States and Canada, with plans for other countries in 2020.

Spelt

This ancient form of wheat is thought to have low levels of gluten and may therefore be friendly to those who are gluten-intolerant. Spelt grains have a thick husk, allowing farmers to grow this crop with less fertilizers or pesticides. A dark, barley-like grain, spelt is more fiber-rich than wheat and can be used in place of risotto or added to soups. Its nutty flavor and chewy texture also makes an excellent grain bowl base or can be used as a side salad.

Finger millet

Millet is in the grass family, making it an excellent gluten-free option for anyone with dietary restrictions. And while millet is widely available, finger millet in particular makes up only ten percent of global production. As a crop it thrives in soil with low fertility and is naturally resistant to insects, so is not pesticide dependent. Eat as a porridge or use as a salad grain, like couscous. Opt for a milled version to use as a flour in breads and pancakes.

Teff

A popular grain amongst foodies, thanks to recent demand, teff is newly being grown in Europe and North America. This Ethiopian grain is resistant to drought and can also tolerate water-logged soils. Teff is also pest-resistant and easy to store post-harvest, and many farmers in North America and Europe are now also growing the grain. It is an excellent source of calcium, iron, and phosphorous. Ground into flour and traditionally used for flatbread, teff’s sweet flavor makes it ideal for crusts and cookies, too.

Beans and Pulses

Long a staple for vegetarians, beans and pulses (edible plant seeds, such as peas) offer an excellent source of protein, fiber, and B vitamins. Legume plants are environmental equalizers, helping to pull nitrogen from the air and “fix” it into a readily available food for plants.


Broad beans

Fava beans are broad beans. Harvested young and eaten blanched, these large, green beans add a pop of color to dishes in early spring when there is little else available fresh. Broad beans make excellent dried beans as well, however, and can be easily overlooked in a sea of more common beans. Boil and puree broad beans into a creamy hummus, or add to soups for a hearty meal.

soy beans

Soy beans

Soy is a commonly known ingredient—tofu, soy milk, miso—but it is rare to see the whole beans used in dishes. It is very high in protein with a similar nutrient density to pork and three times the protein of an egg. As a crop, soy delivers more protein per hectare than any other crop, but it’s not without faults. Most of the soy produced globally is used for animal feed, taking a large amount of food to produce a small amount of meat. This is a prime example of how our current food system is broken. You can help by using soy beans for human consumption—demand will help to tip the scale. Soy beans hold their shape well after cooking and make for excellent warm or cool salads. They have a creamy consistency and can be mashed and used as a dip, or smeared onto sandwiches as a moist and healthy condiment.

Sprouted chickpeas

Sprouting legumes prior to cooking or eating increases the nutritional value of the plant by making the nutrients more available and easier to digest. To sprout, soak chickpeas in water for eight hours, then drain and rinse them. Transfer to a glass jar or bowl and cover with cheesecloth or flour sack. Rinse and repeat daily until chickpeas start “sprouting” (growing a sprout), about 2 or 3 days. Add to soups and stews.

Vegetables

All vegetables are good for you, but here we introduce some new varieties to keep watch for. Eating diverse foods helps refresh your palette and contributes to a diverse gut biome.


Maitake mushrooms

Mushrooms are eco-heroes given their unique ability to grow in areas otherwise unsuitable to other plants–like underground or on the surface of the forest floor. Available in high-end grocery stores and Asian markets, maitake are foraged in China, Japan, and parts of the U.S. Used for their medicinal and nutritional purposes, these mushrooms are high in vitamins B and D. Grown in clusters, maitake have a feathery quality to them, and can be cooked in a clump or pulled apart into smaller pieces. For whole maitake, lay them in a well-oiled pan and press them down, flattening the entire cluster—the mushroom will cook into a crisp, lacey pancake.

white icicle radish

White icicle radish

These long, narrow radishes have a creamy white color and mellow flavor that is only slightly peppery–a far cry from a traditional round, red radish! In the field, icicle radishes deter insects that can harm squash crops and are often planted alongside pumpkins. They contain vitamin C and help aid digestion.

Nuts

Considered a superfood, nuts are high in protein, vitamin E, and have a healthy fat content. They are used across the world in nearly every culture and can be eaten raw, roasted, or any myriad of ways.


Walnuts

Widely available across the globe, walnuts contain more omega 3 fatty acids than many other nuts. Grown on trees that can live well over 100 years, walnuts preserve ecosystems over a long period of time, but are mostly on the list for the nutrient-rich properties. They are delicious raw or cooked and can be eaten at any meal of the day. Crumble roasted walnuts into oatmeal or muesli, add to salads, or roast and blend along with oil and garlic into a thick paste that can be eaten stirred into pasta or used as a dipping sauce.

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