A push to drive more sustainability into the food system could create new trends by encouraging manufacturers, brands, chefs and consumers to turn to more diverse plant-based options, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). German food brand Knorr has teamed up with the charity to launch its global food campaign, which is encouraging people to embrace 50 eco-friendly sources of sustenance.
The WWF notes that 75% of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species. Just three crops – rice, maize and wheat – make up nearly 60% of calories from plants in the entire human diet. This narrow scope doesn’t provide enough vitamins and minerals.
Dietary monotony is also linked to a decline in the range of plants and animals used in and around agriculture, threatening the resilience of the food system and limiting the breadth of food we can eat, according to the report. Since 1900, 75% of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture has been lost. In Thailand, for example, rice varieties that are cultivated have dropped from 16,000 to 37; in the US, 80% of its cabbage, pea and tomato varieties have been lost.
WWF says the 50 foods it has selected should be eaten more because they are nutritious, have a lower impact on the planet, and can be affordable, accessible and taste good.
Some on the list have already been explored by Food Spark, from algae, adzuki beans and amaranth, to beans like black turtle and fava. Okra and ube make the cut, along with hemp seeds and sprouted kidney beans, plus cereals like spelt and buckwheat. Greens like cacti and moringa feature in the 50 as well, accompanied by veggies like jicama, white icicle radish and black salsify.
Of course, we haven’t covered everything before, so here are some of the other interesting ingredients highlighted by WWF.
1. Beans and pulses
Is it a nut or a bean? Well, the bambara is the third most important legume in Africa, but tastes like a nut. It is similar to a peanut, just sweeter, less oily and less fatty, and can be boiled, roasted, fried or milled into a fine flour. The seeds can be eaten as snacks – either plain or with a seasoning. In East Africa, the beans are roasted and puréed into a base for soups.
Another bean masquerading as a nut is the marama, which hails from southern Africa, but is successfully cultivated in Australia and the US. When roasted, it tastes similar to a cashew nut, and can be added to stir-fries, curries and other cooked dishes. It can also be transformed into oil, flour or used to make a milk drink.
Next up are cowpeas (nothing to do with the animal). Grown in warm regions around the world – including Latin America, Southeast Asia and the southern part of the United States – these protein powerhouses can make a hearty, thick soup and their leaves can be enjoyed in the same ways as other leafy greens. The pods can also be eaten when young and are used in stews, while the seeds can be ground into flour and used to make deep-fried or steamed patties. In Senegal, Ghana and Benin, the flour is used in crackers and other baked goods.
2. Cereals and grains
For those looking for something different in the cereal category, WWF is pushing finger millet, an often overlooked species that only makes up around 10% of global millet production. It is a good source of fibre and vitamin B1 as well as being rich in minerals. Eaten as porridge, or milled into flour and used in bread or pancakes, it has a mild flavour that’s slightly nuttier than quinoa and a similar texture to couscous.
Plant-based pizza pusher PickyWops puts khorasan wheat in its bases, but the grain has yet to find mainstream recognition. However, WWF reports that its amber-coloured kernels, which are twice the size of regular wheat’s, are grown in 40 countries. When cooked, they have a richer, creamier and nuttier taste that goes great in stews, soups, pilafs and salads. Khorasan is available in many forms, including wholegrain, couscous and flour.
3. Fruit and vegetables
There is ingredient gold in some common food waste, according to the report. Take pumpkin flowers, which are rich in vitamin C and perfect for soups, sauces, salads and pasta dishes. Don’t forget the leaves either – they taste like a cross between asparagus, broccoli and spinach, and when young can be eaten fresh in salads. Steaming or sautéing the pumpkin leaves also brings out the sweetness (some varieties may have a more bitter flavour).
In a similar vein, the beetroot leaf contains as much iron as spinach and has a subtle taste that is similar to kale. It can also be oven-baked to make crisps.
Parsley root is also pointed out in the report. Slim and tapered in shape with beige skin, parsley root looks like parsnip and can grow up to six inches long. Its great fried as fritters or chips, or grated raw into salads and slaws. Both the root and leaves are edible and high in vitamin C.
It’s not just waste that is overlooked. Orange tomatoes are a variety that are actually sweeter and less acidic than their red relatives. They also contain up to twice as much vitamin A and folate (B vitamin) than other varieties.
These natural meat alternatives have been sending people into raptures, with several publications pushing mushrooms as a 2019 food trend due to the diversification of breeds and uses. The WWF marks out enoki, saffron milk caps and maitake as the big hitters. In fact, maitake mushrooms, can grow to more than 45kg, making them the king of mushrooms. Incredibly flexible ingredients, these three types can be added to stews, sauces, stir-fries and omelettes, as well as marinated, salted or pickled.
Food Spark has looked at lotus seeds, but the lotus root also has potential – it’s already being used in plant-powered desserts in the UK. High in vitamin C, the root has a crunchy texture and a tangy, slightly sweet flavour. A great addition to most dishes where vegetables can be added, they’re commonly used in Asian stir-fries, but can also be deep-fried, braised or pickled.