As the world population grows, we have a pressing need to eat better and farm better, and those of us trying to figure out how to do those things have pointed at lots of different foods as problematic. Almonds, for their water use. Corn, for the monoculture. Beef, for its greenhouse gases. In each of those cases, there’s some truth in the finger-pointing, but none of them is a clear-cut villain.
There’s one food, though, that has almost nothing going for it. It occupies precious crop acreage, requires fossil fuels to be shipped, refrigerated, around the world, and adds nothing but crunch to the plate.
It’s salad, and here are three main reasons why we need to rethink it.
Salad vegetables are pitifully low in nutrition. The biggest thing wrong with salads is lettuce, and the biggest thing wrong with lettuce is that it’s a leafy-green waste of resources.
In July, when I wrote a piece defending corn on the calories-per-acre metric, a number of people wrote to tell me I was ignoring nutrition. Which I was. Not because nutrition isn’t important, but because we get all the nutrition we need in a fraction of our recommended daily calories, and 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 your ire at corn. Turn instead to lettuce.
One of the people I heard from about nutrition is researcher Charles Benbrook. He and colleague Donald Davis developed a nutrient quality index — a way to rate foods based on how much of 27 nutrients they contain. Four of the five lowest-ranking vegetables (by serving size) are salad ingredients: cucumbers, radishes, iceberg lettuce and celery. (The fifth is eggplant.)
Those foods’ nutritional profile can be partly explained by one simple fact: They’re almost all water. Although water figures prominently in just about every vegetable (the sweet potato, one of the least watery, is 77 percent), those four salad vegetables top the list at 95 to 97 percent water. A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious.
Take collard greens. They are 90 percent water, which still sounds like a lot. But it means that, compared with lettuce, every pound of collard greens contains about twice as much stuff that isn’t water, which, of course, is where the nutrition lives. But you’re also likely to eat much more of them, because you cook them. A large serving of lettuce feels like a bona fide vegetable, but when you saute it (not that I’m recommending that), you’ll see that two cups of romaine cooks down to a bite or two.
The corollary to the nutrition problem is the expense problem. The makings of a green salad — say, a head of lettuce, a cucumber and a bunch of radishes — cost about $3 at my supermarket. For that, I could buy more than two pounds of broccoli, sweet potatoes or just about any frozen vegetable going, any of which would make for a much more nutritious side dish to my roast chicken.
Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table. When we switch to vegetables that are twice as nutritious — like those collards or tomatoes or green beans — not only do we free up half the acres now growing lettuce, we cut back on the fossil fuels and other resources needed for transport and storage.
Save the planet, skip the salad.
Salad fools dieters into making bad choices. Lots of what passes for salad in restaurants is just the same as the rest of the calorie-dense diabolically palatable food that’s making us fat, but with a few lettuce leaves tossed in. Next time you order a salad, engage in a little thought experiment: Picture the salad without the lettuce, cucumber and radish, which are nutritionally and calorically irrelevant. Is it a little pile of croutons and cheese, with a few carrot shavings and lots of ranch dressing?
Call something “salad,” and it immediately acquires what Pierre Chandon calls a “health halo.” Chandon, professor of marketing at INSEAD, an international business school in Fontainebleau, France, says that once people have the idea it’s good for them, they stop paying attention “to its actual nutritional content or, even worse, to its portion size.”
I won’t be the first to point out that items labeled “salad” at chain restaurants are often as bad, if not worse, than pastas or sandwiches or burgers when it comes to calories. Take Applebee’s, where the Oriental Chicken Salad clocks in at 1,400 calories, and the grilled version is only 110 calories lighter. Even the Grilled Chicken Caesar, the least calorific of the salads on the regular menu, is 800 calories.
Of course, salad isn’t always a bad choice, and Applebee’s has a selection of special menu items under 550 calories (many chain restaurants have a similar menu category). Applebee’s Thai Shrimp Salad is only 390 calories (although it has more sodium than the Oriental Chicken Salad). Other chains, like relative newcomer Sweetgreen, have a good selection of salads that go further toward earning their health halo: more actual vegetables, less fried stuff.
I asked Bret Thorn, columnist at Nation’s Restaurant News and longtime observer of the restaurant industry, about salads. “Chefs are cognizant of what’s going on in the psychology of diners,” he said. “They’re doing a kind of psychological health washing,” not just with salads, but with labels like “fresh” and “natural,” and foods that are “local” and “seasonal.” “A chef is not a nutritionist, or public health advocate,” Thorn points out. “They make food that customers want to buy.”
And we want to buy things that are fried or creamy or salty or sweet, or all of those things. Which doesn’t mean that the right salad can’t be a good choice for a nutritious meal. It just means that it’s easy to get snookered.
Salad has unfortunate repercussions in our food supply. Lettuce has a couple of No. 1 unenviable rankings in the food world. For starters, it’s the top source of food waste, vegetable division, becoming more than 1 billion pounds of uneaten salad every year. But it’s also the chief culprit for foodborne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control, green leafies accounted for 22 percent of all food-borne illnesses from 1998-2008.
To be fair, “leafy vegetables,” the CDC category, also includes cabbage, spinach and other kinds of greens, but the reason the category dominates is that the greens are often eaten raw. As in salad.
None of this is to say that salad doesn’t have a role in our food supply. I like salad, and there’s been many a time a big bowl of salad on the dinner table has kept me from a second helping of lasagna. The salads we make at home aren’t the same as the ones we buy in restaurants; according to the recipe app Yummly, its collection of lettuce-based salads average 398 calories per serving (although a few do get up into Oriental Chicken territory).
An iceberg wedge, with radishes and bacon and blue-cheese dressing, is something I certainly have no plans to give up. But as we look for ways to rejigger our food supply to grow crops responsibly and feed people nutritiously, maybe we should stop thinking about salad as a wholesome staple, and start thinking about it as a resource-hungry luxury.
Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel. She’ll join the Free Range chat on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.