When it comes to fresh food, we know what we should do: buy local, eat less meat, look for fish approved by the Good Fish Guide. But what about the items in our store cupboard – the sauces, spices, condiments, spreads and ingredients that are canned, jarred or dried? How do we choose them so as to inflict as little damage on the planet as possible?
The bad news is, it’s not that simple. Sustainability is a complex hydra. “There are social criteria, health criteria, embedded carbon [all the CO2 emitted in producing a product throughout its lifecycle] and embedded water [all the water entailed],” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London and the person who coined the phrase “food miles”. For example, buying dried pulses and cooking them yourself will reduce the energy expended on packaging and transporting cans, but it entails more emissions than in a factory where the process is streamlined. In theory, dried fruits and spices have a low environmental impact – but this is increased if they are quickly freeze dried rather than dried slowly in the sunshine.
The good news is that a well-stocked store cupboard can help to reduce food waste, which is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It can also play a part in food security.
“A store cupboard is ultimately about giving the household a buffer,” says Lang. “We need to transform consumers’ approach to household planning and to cooking – not assume supermarkets will do that for us.” Since refrigerators replaced larders, technology “made consumers dependent on energy-guzzling supply chains”, he says, which are now facing uncertainty. Long term, this will require changes in public policy: sustainable store cupboard products are far from being universally affordable. Still, there are cheaper – if ever so slightly less sustainable – options, and if you have space and can afford to, buy loose and in bulk where possible to save money and packaging.
British pulses: Hodmedod’s
Pulses are truly the holy grail of store cupboard goods, says Lang. They are storable, nutritious, grow easily and abundantly in the UK, and are great for soil health. In fact, Josiah Meldrum of Hodmedod’s – purveyor of British pulses – is almost embarrassed by how positive pulses are for the environment. “There really is no bad news,” he says. Being rich in protein, they are perfect as a substitute for or supplement to meat, so that we consume less of it. Then there’s their ability to fertilise the soil, using root nodules containing bacteria which convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia – “so they don’t need any artificial fertilisers, which degrade the soil,” continues Meldrum. The nodules increase organic matter by feeding microbial life which, when it dies, “ensures carbon is locked into the soil”. Hodmedod’s baked beans taste at least as good as Heinz’s, and its carlin peas are an excellent British substitute for chickpeas.
Palm oil-free peanut butter: Manilife, Meridian
Like pulses, peanuts are naturally a sustainable crop that demands little water, has nitrogen-fixing properties and, when planted in rotation with other crops, reduces soil erosion. Other nut butters are available, of course, but walnuts and almonds are more water intensive and less versatile than peanut butter, which can be used in a variety of soups and sauces as well as on toast. Manilife sources its peanuts from a family-run farm in Argentina which follows organic processes as closely as possible, and eschews palm oil: one of the biggest drivers of deforestation worldwide.
‘Heritage grain’ flour: Sharpham Park, Wildfarmed, Gilchesters, Doves Farm
It’s hard to believe something so ubiquitous and innocuous as flour could be environmentally problematic, but modern, hybridised wheat has a lot to answer for. Being bred over the years to have a short stem and no protective husk has left the strain entirely dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, which reduces biodiversity and strips the soil of organic matter, leaving it susceptible to flooding and erosion. Heritage grains such as spelt, emmer and einkorn have deeper roots and can be grown without chemicals on farms that adopt regenerative practices. They are then stoneground – a process which preserves the nutritional properties of the grain – into a flavourful flour. Will Murray, of the sustainably minded restaurant Fallow, is a particular fan of Wildfarmed. “They buy the flour before it has been grown, so they’re not driven by yield, they’re driven by quality, which means supporting soil nutrients and soil health.”
‘Heritage grain’ pasta: Pastificio Carleschi, Sharpham Park, Fresh Flour Company
As with flour, so with pasta. Pastificio Carleschi and the Fresh Flour Company use the stoneground flour of British-grown heritage grains to produce beautiful, bronze-cut pasta, dried at low temperatures to maintain the nutrition, flavour and texture of the final product. Pastificio Carleschi avoids plastic packaging. Fresh Flour Company supplies loose pasta, direct from the mill and through a network of zero-waste shops as well as online. “I struggled a bit with [sustainable] pasta, but I really like the Fresh Flour Company,” says Michelin-green-starred chef Chantelle Nicholson, of the zero-waste restaurant Apricity in London. “They do fettuccini, ramen noodles, bucatini – all sorts of shapes.”
Raw honey: Oliveology, Field & Flower, Local Honey Man, Bermondsey Street Bees (look for your nearest local small-scale supplier)
Around two-thirds of the crops that feed the world rely on pollination by bees, birds and bats. Pollination benefits both human nutrition and biodiversity, yet monocultures and the blanket use of chemicals in intensive agriculture are compromising bees’ ability to support the ecosystem, putting their – and, ultimately, our – survival at risk. Supporting beekeepers who prioritise the health of their hives and work alongside organic farmers is one way of safeguarding against this risk – and the best way to do that is to look for raw honey, which will by definition have been produced on a small scale. Being a natural preservative, honey does not need heating – yet industrial honeys are made from a huge number of sources, and each honey will vary wildly in colour and viscosity. “They blend them together and heat them to make a uniform product,” says Sam Wallace, co-founder of Field & Flower, which sources honeys from independent producers in UK and Europe. This means the ethics of how and where it is gathered are muddier, and that the market for honey is distorted, she continues, making sustainable beekeeping less financially viable.
Fava bean umami paste: Hodmedod’s
“We love using miso in our cooking,” says Murray, “and Hodmedod’s umami paste is a good alternative to the Japanese product. It’s very dark, intense and umami.” Like all legumes, fava beans flourish in regenerative farming systems, support soil fertility and soil carbon and work well in crop rotations with grains and cereals. Hodmedod’s ferments these beans to create a paste that can serve instead of miso, which is traditionally made with fermented soy and imported to the UK from Asia. It’s available to buy online in bulk, in 20kg tubs, or in smaller recyclable glass jars.
Seaweed: Cornish Seaweed Company, Mara Seaweed, Wild Irish Seaweeds
Seaweed is only as niche as your knowhow. At Fallow, Murray uses sustainably harvested seaweed from Cornwall to make all sorts of savoury sauces and stocks, including dashi, one of the foundational stocks of Japanese cooking that is most commonly made with sardines, dried bonito flakes or shiitake mushrooms. “It’s one of the most sustainable foods you can eat,” Murray says. It requires no chemicals or fertilisers to grow and, by absorbing huge quantities of carbon dioxide, its cultivation improves the quality of the surrounding water and ultimately our atmosphere. In Scotland, saucier Jacob Thundil uses seaweed to make a plant-based alternative to soy sauce. “I wanted to avoid soy, because it’s a potential allergen and often intensively farmed – and when I was experimenting with seaweed grown at my friend’s farm, I found I could create similar flavours,” he says. The seaweed is aged, and only a small amount is used so it is not overpowering.
Fish sauce: Red Boat, Sozyë
Thundil uses Scottish seaweed to make plant-based “fish” sauce, for similar reasons: “It often contains shrimp, which is an allergen; there are ethical issues around farming; and fish sauce is transported over long distances.” The main issue with traditional fish sauce is the lack of transparency. Sustainable shrimp farms do exist, and the other common ingredients for fish sauce, anchovies and sardines, are “good candidates for sustainable fisheries because they reproduce rapidly at a relatively young age and, when well managed, are a great source of sustainable, highly nutritious seafood. But this isn’t always the case and sadly, south-east Asia isn’t renowned for its sustainably managed fisheries,” says Jack Clarke, a sustainable seafood advocate at the Marine Conservation Society. That said, fish sauce needs to be viewed in the round. “A bottle lasts a long time and a few splashes impart a lot of flavour. I’ll add fish sauce to otherwise vegetarian dishes to give them a slap of umami … you’re using a tiny proportion of animal-derived ingredients to potentially take the place of something like prawns or beef, and this could be seen as reducing a dish’s impact on the planet.”
To that end, many chefs swear by Red Boat, which is simply made from salt and barrel-fermented wild-caught black anchovies. Clarke can’t comment on the sustainability of the fishery – it doesn’t have a rating – but given “a third of global fish catches are turned into animal feed, the more we can divert directly into human nutrition, the better, in my opinion.”
“Even from a flavour perspective I wouldn’t buy pesto,” says Nicholson; homemade is a no-brainer. Mass-produced pesto often uses pine nuts from China. The olive oil is rarely sustainably sourced. The jars are small, and yet somehow you always end up with a little bit left that accrues mould within days. Yet there are few better ways of using up old herbs, salad leaves, carrot tops and leafy vegetables than blending them with oil and nuts. Use pumpkin or sunflower seeds rather than pine nuts, says Nicholson – or better yet, British cobnuts; Food & Forest have an excellent, regeneratively farmed supply. Use a pestle and mortar rather than an electric grinder to make it more sustainable still, and sterilise your jars so it will last longer.
It’s hard to believe something as ancient and poetic as the olive tree could be intensively farmed, but it can – and with that comes all the attendant environmental problems of pollution, erosion and lost biodiversity. Traditional small-scale methods of olive oil production have very little environmental impact, however. Olive trees can grow in areas of mixed land use, promoting biodiversity, and require very little water compared with other crops. They are well suited to regenerative farming practices – but these are only viable if growers are selling their oil directly to consumers rather than into global supply chains, where they would get homogenised and depreciated. Mercifully, these are just a few of many suppliers who source their olive oil direct from small-scale producers. Opt for refillable cans and bottles if you can.
Organic Joha rice, millet, barley: Forest Whole Foods, Hodmedod’s, Doves Farm, Hatton Hill
Is there such a thing as sustainable rice? Lang doesn’t think so. “The UN assessments all say rice is the staple food most at risk from climate change,” he tells me. It is responsible for 10% of the world’s methane emissions, and the embedded water cost – the amount of water entailed in the production of rice – is high. “Until the catastrophic River Po drought I’d say you could opt for Italian risotto rice over Indian, but now Italy is also water-stressed,” says Lang. Even the award-winning Indian chef Chet Sharma is steering clear of rice as far as possible in his restaurant Bibi, with the exception of Joha rice, which is slowly grown and organically farmed in the Assam region. Yet there are plenty of sustainably grown British grains that can stand in for rice, depending on the dish you’re cooking. “Emmer wheat doesn’t have the softness of rice, but it has a lovely bite to it. Pearled barley would work alongside curries or in risottos,” says Nicholson.
Rubies in the Rubble ketchup
It doesn’t have to be Heinz; it can be Rubies in the Rubble ketchup, made with organic tomatoes and sweetened with oversized or misshaped pears and apples which are surplus to demand and have no other buyer. Nicholson actively prefers this ketchup to Heinz – and it doesn’t just come in glass bottles: the new recyclable squeezy bottle is 100% post-consumer recycled plastic waste. “I would say it’s my favourite – and you can buy it in the supermarket now, too.”
Spices: Steenbergs, Ren’s Kitchen, Spice Mountain, Top Up Truck, Hodmedod’s
The same rules which apply to all foods apply to spices: the shorter and more transparent the supply chain, the better. These suppliers are all either fair trade, or have direct links with spice producers, and are familiar with the way they are grown and dried. Steenbergs sources organic, Fairtrade spices if possible, Hodmedod’s sources only organic, British-grown spices, while Top Up Truck and Ren’s Kitchen – Nicholson’s favoured spice purveyor – allow you to buy in bulk.