Although “superfoods” come and go, salad never seems to fall out of favor with the health cognoscenti.
Sure, you hear about the occasional bad apple. (For example, one of the Southwest salads at McDonald’s has more calories than a Big Mac). But usually a bowl of greens is the perfect canvas for a nutrient-packed meal. In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that calculated nutrient density for almost 50 fruits and vegetables, 17 of the top 20 were leafy greens. Having a high intake of vegetables such as arugula, kale, romaine lettuce and watercress cuts the risk of some cancers, dementia, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and other illnesses.
The produce section now has more types of greens than ever, so it’s easy to vary your intake. Here’s what you need to know before you toss your next salad:
Blend your greens. Each type has unique nutrients, flavors and textures. Romaine lettuce, for instance, adds crunch and is packed with vision-protecting vitamin A. Arugula imparts a spicy kick along with a dose of a major cancer-fighting isothiocyanate. And mild-tasting spinach may help curb your hunger: It contains thylakoids, compounds that slow fat digestion and promote the release of hormones that make you feel full, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
Not organic? Don’t panic. Organic is best for lowering pesticide exposure and supporting a sustainable agriculture system. But your primary goal is to eat a lot of produce every day. Such greens as kale, lettuce and spinach were generally low in pesticides when Consumer Reports’ scientists analyzed 12 years of U.S. Agriculture Department data in 2015.
Know when to wash. Rinse unpackaged greens to get rid of any dirt or grit. “Wash just before serving, since wet produce will support the growth of bacteria,” says Luke LaBorde, an associate professor of food science at Penn State University. The odds of “pre-washed” or “triple-washed” greens being contaminated with bacteria are low, but Consumer Reports’ food safety experts say that it’s a good idea to wash them anyway.
Get creative. Veggies and chicken aren’t your only topping options: Beans, eggs, fruit, canned tuna or salmon, nuts and seeds, and whole grains can turn a simple salad into a satisfying meal.
Add fresh herbs. They’re flavorful — so you may use less dressing — and healthy. Parsley and chives were in the top 20 of the CDC’s produce ranking, but any herb works.
Toss in some healthy fat. It helps absorb the nutrients from greens and other veggies, a study from Purdue University finds. If you use a good source of monounsaturated fat, you don’t need much: just three grams. That’s three-quarters of a teaspoon of olive oil, an eighth of an avocado or five almonds. You can add more for flavor or satiety, but keep in mind that along with fat comes calories.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.