If you want to dine sustainably, fermented cabbage is hard to beat.
Commercial beef is bad, local produce is good: we all know the basics of sustainable eating by now, right?
But once you cross the sliding glass door threshold at your local mega-grocer, choosing food becomes more complex. The fluorescent lighting and soft jazz seem to work in harmony to make us forget that the gleaming, wintertime tomato we’re reaching for flew first-class on a jumbo jet to get here and, from birth, was force-fed a steady diet of fertilizer and pesticides.
So how can you make good, sustainable food choices? In short: eat more sauerkraut.
“Sauerkraut is really interesting because even at the largest-scale industrial level it’s still lacto-fermented. The ingredients are cabbage, water, and salt. That means from a manufacturing perspective there’s very little that goes into it,” says Arthur Gillette, head researcher and co-founder of HowGood, a Brooklyn-based company that rates food products via a complex sustainability algorithm. HowGood’s most sustainable food company for 2014 was Farmhouse Culture, a California sauerkraut maker. (A second sauerkraut company showed up in HowGood’s top 10.)
“It’s unlike the canned sauerkraut you grew up with,” promises Farmhouse Culture CEO, Kathryn Lukas. She’s a trained chef who moved to Germany, fell in love with fresh sauerkraut and decided to bring it back to the U.S. Her product is “a terroir-focused kraut,” made from local California ingredients. “It full of probiotics, but it’s also full of vitamin C,” Lukas says. “[Explorer] James Cook took sauerkraut with him on his voyages to prevent scurvy.”
Although Brassicaceaes (i.e. members of the mustard family, like broccoli, kale, and cabbage) are worm-prone, cabbage is less so, meaning it can be grown with fewer pesticides, Gillette says.
HowGood factors things like worminess, pesticide use, and 60 other elements into a food’s total score. Total impact of the corporate choices the food’s producer makes is also taken into account. For example, if a company has admirable sustainability practices but has numerous human rights complaints or has failed a few inspections, its food’s HowGood score will reflect these infractions.
The final score is then listed on food tags in grocery stores as “Good,” “Very Good,” and “Great” ratings. Right now the company’s system is featured in 68 stores nationwide. Gillette hopes to add more stores in 2015. If you can’t find labels in your store and you’re without a smartphone, you can always just stock up on fermented cabbage. The scurvy thing probably isn’t your biggest concern, but considering some studies say our current food system produces as much as a quarter of human-caused emissions, eating sustainably should be.
“Good sauerkraut is sour, but not too sour—it’s more tart,” Lukas advises. “And it’s not that salty, just pleasingly salty and crunchy. When you don’t pasteurize it, it’s crunchy.”