Did you know that 75% of what we eat comes from only 12 plant and 5 animal species, and that just three (rice, maize, wheat) make up nearly 60% of calories from plants in the entire human diet? Something to ponder next time on your next food shop, or you’re looking at a restaurant menu and wondering what to choose.
Not only is such a diet somewhat monotonous, it excludes valuable sources of nutrition for human health and has been linked to a decline in the diversity of plants and animals used in and around agriculture (agrobiodiversity), threatening the resilience of our food system and limiting the breadth of food we can eat.
Farming a narrow range of crops using intensive methods affects our fragile natural ecosystems. Relying on animal-based protein sources puts additional strain on the environment, while meat, dairy and egg production uses more water, land and greenhouse gas than plant production, as well as contributing to pollution through liquid waste discharged into rivers and seas.
This is all worrying, because by 2050 the world population is predicted to increase to almost 10 billion people, who will all need to be nourished by a planet with finite resources. It’s well documented that, to do so, we need to change the way we farm and fish, and what we choose to eat, so the global food system becomes more sustainable.
The ingenious World Wildlife Fund, together with Knorr, has put together a list of 50 future plant-based foods from around the world that will boost the nutrition of your meals and make our food supply more resilient. It’s a tasty list of 13 cereals, grains and tubers, 12 beans legumes and sprouts, 18 vegetables, 3 mushrooms and 4 nuts and seeds that are affordable, tasty and (mostly) easily accessible and that also have a lower impact on our planet than animal-based and intensively farmed foods and so contribute to greater agrobiodiversity.
The list includes vegetables to increase intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, plant based sources of protein to replace meat, poultry and fish, resulting in reduced negative impact on our environment, and more nutrient-rich sources of carbohydrates to promote agrobiodiversity and provide more nutrients. Swapping staples like maize and white rice for fonio or spelt, for example, also helps safeguard these ancient variants for future generations. Some are readily available already, whilst others need to be brought back into the food system. The more you ask for them the more likely this is to happen.
1. Algaes such as laver seaweed and wake seaweed are nutrient-rich and critical to our existence on the planet. They are responsible for half of all oxygen production on Earth and all aquatic ecosystems depend on them. They contain essential fatty acids and are an excellent source of antioxidants. Algae can be rich in protein and have a meat-like umami flavour, making them a potential replacement for meat8, 9. You can read more about seaweed in our feature here.
2. Beans and other pulses such as adzuki beans, black turtle beans, broad beans (or fava beans), bambara groundnuts, cowpeas, lentils, maramba beans, mung beans and soya beans are members of the legume family. They can convert nitrogen from the air and ‘fix’ it into a form that can be readily used by plants. More than environmental superheroes, beans offer us a rich source of fibre, protein and B vitamins. They are eaten in many dishes all over the world and have a mild flavour and meat-like texture, making them a sensible swap for meat in stews, soups and sauces.
3. Cacti are perhaps a surprising inclusion, but many species of cacti are cultivated for consumption, with the delicious young stem segments, usually called nopales, the part most commonly used in recipes. Popular in Mexican cuisine, cacti store water, which allows them to grow in arid climates and tolerate drought. They also contain substantial amounts of vitamins C and E, carotenoids, fibre and amino acids, and are said to be a good to aid weightloss and as a hungover cure.
4. Cereals and grains have been the principal component of diets for thousands of years, and for both environmental and health reasons, there is a pressing need to vary the types grown and eaten. Choosing more unusual varieties such as amaranth, buckwheat, finger millet, fonio, khorasan wheat, quinoa, spelt, teff and wild rice will give you much more nutrition and help improve soil health and increase agricultural biodiversity.
5. Fruit Vegetables such as squash, tomatoes, eggplants/aubergines, peppers and zucchini/ courgettes are vegetable-like fruits eaten as vegetables and commonly mistaken for them. WWF’s report suggests we choose pumpkin flowers, okra and orange tomatoes as our choice of fruit vegetables for the future. They are sweeter and usually contain a higher amount of carbohydrate and water compared to vegetables. Commonly grown in warm climates, fruit vegetables can be eaten in various forms and tend to be high in vitamin C and fibre.
6. Leafy Greens such as beet greens, broccoli rabe, kale, moringa, pumpkin leaves, pak choi, red cabbage, spinach and watercress are arguably the most versatile and nutritious of all types of vegetables. They are grown as part of other vegetables, such as beets and pumpkins, and as the leaves themselves. They contain dietary fibre, lots of vitamins and minerals, are low in calories, and have been associated with various health benefits. Leafy greens are typically fast-growing and, eaten cooked or raw, are part of a wide variety of dishes all over the world.
7. Mushrooms such as enoki mushrooms, maitake mushrooms and saffron milk cap mushrooms have been cultivated for centuries for their taste and nutritional value. There are more than 2,000 edible varieties of mushrooms, all rich in B vitamins and vitamin D as well as protein and fibre. Mushrooms can grow where many other foods would not, including on by-products recycled from other crops. They are not considered plants as they do not photosynthesise; they are classified as fungi. Their texture and umami flavour make them a tasty addition and a suitable substitute for meat.
8. Nuts and Seeds such as flax seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts are superfoods with an unmatched protein, vitamin E and good fat content, paired with desirable flavour and texture. Their crunch makes them a great addition to almost every dish. Yet, of the many varieties available, only a few are commonly eaten. Used in cuisines around the world, these small embryonic plants can stand alone as snacks or add flavour and a satisfying crunch to salads, soups and desserts.
9. Root vegetables such as black salsify, parsley root and white icicle radish are the crisp and colourful underground parts of plants that are eaten as vegetables. They often have leafy tops that grow above the ground that should also be eaten to optimise the amount of food these nutritious plants can provide. Root vegetables contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and are hardy, cool-season crops. Once harvested, they survive for a relatively long time compared with other vegetables.
10. Sprouts such as alfafa sprouts, sprouted kidney beans and sprouted chickpeas are made from a process that dates back 5,000 years when Chinese physicians used sprouts medicinally because of their extremely high nutrient content. The sprouting process doubles, and in some cases triples, the nutritional value of the plant. Seeds and beans need warm and humid conditions to sprout, therefore they carry the risk of bacterial growth, so sprouting needs to be carried out carefully. Sprouts are delicious as a side dish topped with a light dressing or in soups, salads and sandwiches to add a nice crunchy texture.
11. Tubers such as lotus root, ube (or purple yam), yam bean root and red Indonesian sweet potatoes grow downward, anchoring the plant into the ground, where they absorb and store valuable nutrients for use during the winter or drier months. Typically high in carbohydrates, they are a valuable source of energy. They can be eaten in a huge variety of ways, including boiled, baked, or as a sweetened pudding. White potatoes are the most common type of tuber. Growing and eating the less common types of tubers makes our food system more resilient while, in most circumstances, providing more nutrients.
For detail on all the ingredients mentioned here, read the full report Future 50 Foods here.