Salads Are Underrated!

September 1, 2015 in Foodland, Health, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

I must admit that I’ve not read Tamar Haspel’s articles before; but this first one, published in the Washington Post last week immediately got my attention, and not in a positive way. Her article was titled: Why salad is so overrated.

This article is deserving of more criticism than praise; I almost don’t know where to start.

  • Maybe I’ll start with the title of the article. Yes, the title immediately got my attention; which is, of course exactly what it’s supposed to do (however, annoying that is). Let us take the ingredients out of her argument one by one, and see if her view of salads holds as much water as she criticizes salad vegetables as holding.
  • Please note that the word salad is frequently used interchangeably with the word lettuce in Haspel’s article; maybe even specifically iceberg lettuce. Haspel never clearly spells that out, but it is crucial, as iceberg lettuce is a nutritional weakling, compared with other lettuces.
  • The following concept causes me heartburn. She somehow has the idea that (its not that “nutrition isn’t important, but because we get all the nutrition we need in a fraction of our recommended daily calories,” … “filling in the rest of the day’s food is a job for crops like corn. But if you think nutrition is the most important metric, don’t direct our ire at corn. Turn instead to lettuce.” She is defending a more calorie dense food like corn and criticizing a less calorie dense food, lettuce. That is backward for health and weight management. I think that the place to start with this part of the article is to suggest that not all journalists have become proficient in nutritional science. How do you think that Michael Pollan, a journalist, got away with such success in his nutritional books? He consulted with real nutrition experts – real valid nutrition expertise. He did a lot of investigative research, as excellent journalists do. We need to be wary of biased and un-scientifically-based nutrition information. It can be harmful to us individually and to the general public!

I would advise Ms. Haspel when looking for someone to support her nutrition argument; it pays to find someone who is not steeped in controversy.

Charles Benbrook, a trained agricultural economist, is openly funded by Big Organic to publish on issues central to their anti-GMO market strategy. He is no longer affiliated with Washington State University. I don’t want to spend my time today discussing organic foods and GMO crops. Nor do I want to discuss his employment situation and Conflict of Interest representations to the New England Journal of Medicine, I do want to say let’s not use an “expert” who is well paid as a lobbyist for a certain industry, and then base an argument for a point of view on eating salad on his advice. I’m not saying that there’s no truth in any of his work; I’m just saying please use work with much less bias.

  • Let’s not allow the problems with restaurant-made salads keep us from enjoying and benefiting from including salad in our menus. Certainly, there are way too many calories in many of the restaurant salads. There are also way too many calories in many of the other items in restaurants; so does it follow that all salads provide too many calories? Of course not! We should be aware of all restaurant foods/portion sizes.
  •  Nor should we nix the salad because of foodborne illnesses. There are things we can do to reduce that risk, including washing our greens and growing them ourselves, if possible.
  • As to the spoilage problem, some greens are hard to keep for very long – especially in the summer. I use quite a bit of romaine lettuce; it solves two problems. First, it offers crispiness; which Dr. Grandpa, Victor prefers to the softer leaf lettuces. In addition, romaine will keep longer in the crisper of the fridge. The food industry is working on reducing the spoilage problem. They’ve made great progress and will continue to make inroads in that arena.

What can we learn from this experience?

Foods play on their different attributes and potentials, their different macronutrients and micronutrients combine to provide part of the total needs in one’s diet. Fiber, for example, has no nutrients. That does not mean that fiber is of no value in the human body. Salads are surely a good source of fiber.

Eating leafy green vegetables is something I highly encourage. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that I’ve seen many studies that would say to not eat leafy green vegetables; unless, of course you’re on blood thinners and have to keep your vitamin K consumption down. But seriously, trying to get the public to eat more leafy green vegetables is a worthy goal. Lettuce, a leafy green vegetable has considerable nutrients per calorie; which is what nutrient density is all about – how nutritious a food is compared to how many calories are in the food. Filling up on nutrient dense vegetables, including lettuce is a smart decision; unless you’re trying to gain weight. The reason that lettuce is considered to be nutrient dense is because of its high water content. Water has no calories (thank goodness). Nutrient density is the ratio of nutrients to energy; since water has no calories, lettuce is considered a high nutrient dense food. Nutrient density is not about the total nutrition in a given serving of a food. Somehow Haspel gets both the concept of nutrient density and the goal of calorie reduction per spoonful backward.

If you’re in a starvation situation, you want to eat something that is as close as possible to your own flesh. So if you are starving or severely malnourished, eat the best animal protein you can get your hands on. Generally, we Americans are not starving. Many are nutritionally impoverished, but not starving. The greater problem is that we’re not well nourished; and that is in large part because we’re not getting enough plants in our diet. So Haspel’s article is really running counter to the best scientific consensus. Let’s figure out how to grow plants, including lettuce with less land and less water. It is no solution to the general problem to encourage fewer menu items that include lettuce.

Haspel, salad is not only iceberg lettuce wedge, with radishes and bacon and blue-cheese dressing. We don’t need to limit ourselves to iceberg lettuce; there are many types of greens that can be used in a salad. Of course there’s spinach, romaine, Boston Bibb, butterhead, endive, escarole, kale, mesclun (mixed baby greens), baby beet greens and dandelions. If you want a little peppery, tart or bitter in your greens add a little arugula (Rocket), radicchio, watercress or endive. To add to the crispness factor, include cabbage (including green, purple or Chinese); iceberg lettuce or the stems of Swiss chard or the ribs of romaine. You don’t have to serve one type of greens; mixtures like spring greens or any mixture you come up with is a great start to a stunning salad.

You can look at the nutrients in both iceberg and romaine and compare for yourself. You will notice that there is 82% vitamin A (really carotenoids – not technically vitamin A) in romaine and only 7% in iceberg; 19% vitamin C in romaine and 3% in iceberg; vitamin K is significantly higher in romaine (60%) than in iceberg (22%); and also folic acid is 16% in romaine and only 5% in iceberg. The amino acid score is better in romaine. What this doesn’t cover are the phytonutrients in either. The point is that romaine is more nutrient dense; but if you’re looking for additional crunch, add some iceberg. If you or your family member likes more crunch, and iceberg gets them to eat more salad then I say, ‘get iceberg on the shopping list.’

Add something exciting to your salad: edamame, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, beets, celery, sprouts, mushrooms, scallions, radish, olives, hearts of palm, avocado, nuts or seeds, artichoke hearts and so on.

You may want to keep a salad ingredient list in the kitchen. I wrote an article in July 2010 called: A “How To” for Salads. The list might be a good start to get you thinking about being creative with salad making. It’s not just lettuce alone as the old honeymoon joke goes. There are items in the preceding two paragraphs that can be added to the 2010 list, so make it yours. Lettuce is a great base to begin building a salad masterpiece; and that can lead to a healthier you, when you add all kinds of low calorie goodies to it. You may want to consider making your own dressings; there are many websites that offer delicious recipes for healthy dressings. One that I like is Blendtec. There are ten other pages of articles about salads on the Dr. Grandma’s website; so don’t limit yourself to an iceberg salad.

Always looking for the silver lining……. Maybe reviewing this article can have a net gain. Maybe someone out there will begin eating salads more frequently and learn to make them interesting and varied. I can always hope.