Photograph by Catherine Karnow, NG Creative
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Lettuce-heavy salads, however beautiful, are not really doing us any nutritional favors.
Photograph by Catherine Karnow, NG Creative

Is it Time to Scrap Salad?

Salad may not be all it’s cracked up to be. A recent article in the Washington Post lowers the boom on our favorite, no-fault, diet-conscious lunch, pointing out that salad, food-wise, has diddlysquat going for it. Just for starters: It sucks up valuable crop space; needs to be shipped and refrigerated, which requires inordinate amounts of fossil fuels; and, at the end of the day, delivers practically nothing in the way of nutrition.

Nutrition-wise, a top criminal in salad is lettuce—which, attractive though it is (see Elegantly Dressed Salads Were Once Quite Fashionable), is essentially nothing but water. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing: most vegetables contain hefty percentages of water. Cucumbers and lettuce are 96 percent water; zucchini, radishes, and celery, 95 percent; tomatoes, 94 percent; cauliflower, eggplant, and spinach, 92 percent; broccoli, 91 percent; and even the stodgy and solid potato, 79 percent. The question, though, is whether the non-water leftovers make a vegetable worth our while.

A 2011 report by researchers Charles Benbrook and Donald Davis for The Organic Center attempted to answer just that question by creating a Nutritional Quality Index (NQI), rating foods by their content of 27 essential nutrients: 11 vitamins, eight minerals, protein, fiber, antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, linoleic acid linolenic acid, lycopene, and choline. The system is intended to help people make smart food choices by ranking food nutritional quality by serving size, calorie, or gram.

Results show that fresh veggies deliver the biggest nutritional bang per calorie—an average of 0.25 “nutrition units” per 100 calories’-worth of food. By serving size, however, it’s a different story. Romaine lettuce, for example, has a whopping NQI of 0.766 per 100 calories. However, a cup-sized serving contains just 10 calories, which means that you have to eat an awful lot of lettuce to get maximum nutritional benefits.

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A farm hand carries a stack of boxes into a lettuce field near Blanca, Colorado. A large portion of the lettuce will rot before it gets to consumers.  Photograph by James L. Amos

And most of us don’t. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 9 percent of Americans eat even their recommended two to three cups of vegetables a day. Given our national reluctance to eat our greens, the argument goes, we’re simply not getting enough nutritional benefit from lettuce to devote so much time and energy to it. According to the Benbrook and Davis data, we’d be better off, nutrition-wise, with calf liver (0.562 NQI per serving) or even a bowl of Cheerios (0.127 NQI per serving).

Not only do we not eat enough lettuce to do us much good, we also throw a lot of it away. (See Clean Your Plate: Getting a Handle on Food Waste.) Food waste in the United States—enough tossed food to fill an annual 730 football stadiums—has been estimated to cost us $165 billion a year. Trashed food accounts for some 31 percent of American cropland and 25 percent of freshwater use—and, according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, annually sucks up 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Nearly 25 percent of methane emissions come from chucked food in landfills. Lettuce and other leafy greens are prime culprits here, since they don’t keep well, and overly optimistic shoppers often find that their crispy sacks of lettuce, spinach, and arugula have turned to slime in the refrigerator veggie drawer.

Growers in California’s Salinas Valley, which produces 70 percent or so of America’s salad greens, throw a substantial (but undisclosed) proportion of their produce away before it ever reaches the nation’s supermarkets and kitchen tables.

Salad also suffers from deceptive advertising, in the form of the so-called health halo, which leads eaters to over-estimate the healthiness of a food based on an evocative buzz phrase, such as “lite” or “low-fat.” Call anything a salad and we’ll assume that it’s a healthy, low-calorie, responsible meal choice. The cruel truth is that many salads on the market are often anything but.

While a Big Mac, the poster child for unhealthy eating, contains 550 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat, and about 1,000 milligrams of sodium, a Santa Fe-style salad—complete with tortilla strips, cheese, and guacamole—can run as much as 1,200 calories with 14 grams of saturated fat; a Cobb salad, with blue cheese, avocado, bacon, and chicken, clocks in at 1,300 calories; and a buffalo chicken salad—as served at Chili’s—contains not only 1,200 calories but a nerve wracking 4,320 mg of sodium. In other words, there are a lot of salads out there that are caloric wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The anti-salad argument isn’t all hot air. In a world threatened by food insecurity, we need to think about what crops can best provide the most nutrition for the greatest number on the available land.

On the other hand, we should also think twice about tossing the leafy green baby out with the bath water. In this era of obesity epidemic, salad remains a godsend for dieters. A cup of lettuce or spinach is a mere 10 calories, a good-sized tomato or cucumber about 40, a large green pepper about 45. Salad veggies, which can expand to incorporate everything from artichokes and asparagus to celery, kale, and broccoli, are generally low in calories, loaded with fiber, and packed with healthful antioxidants. And, frankly, it doesn’t take much in the way of commonsense to realize that if a salad comes topped with French fries and melted cheese—well, no matter what it’s called, it’s not about to do your waistline and arteries any good.

Food waste is a larger problem. On a small scale, consumers can help by making better choices about the kinds and quantities of foods they buy. (See the EPA’s Reducing Food Waste Basics.) We may also be getting some help from science. Researchers at England’s University of Southampton have initiated a breeding program to create slower-ripening, more resilient lettuce leaves that stay fresher longer, thus increasing lettuce shelf life and reducing lettuce waste.

In the meantime, I’d say don’t buy more than you can eat. And keep on crunching.