Iceberg lettuce, we eat more iceberg lettuce than all other vegetables combined. It’s is the most commonly eaten vegetable in the US with the exception of white potatoes. Do you know what they have in common? They are both almost nutritionally defunct.
That’s right. Almost entirely lacking in nutrition. You might as well be eating paper towel. Okay, not actually. But you know what I mean.
We’ve all heard that iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value. It’s been told day in and day out and while that’s not entirely true – it does have high water content and basic nutritional value – it’s much lower than pretty much every other green you can get.
What Makes Iceberg So Darn Lacking in Nutrients?
There are a few reasons, one is that people tend not to like bitter veggies, and so we bred that bitterness out and made the mildest (tasteless) lettuce known to man. Congratulations us – hooray for the opposable thumb.
But when we bred out that bitterness, we bred out the good things that come with that – bear with me, I’ll explain that in a bit.
The other reason is the shape of the lettuce, or rather, the way that the leaves are shaped. Tightly wrapped leaves in a veggie signify that a lettuce has evolved so that it doesn’t have or need the dark pigmentation associated with loose leaf lettuces. But that dark pigment is what is so crucial to getting your vitamins.
That dark pigmentation is called anthocyanin, and it’s a powerful antioxidant. It’s been linked to strong anti-cancer properties and other health benefits.
There are 2 rules for buying really good lettuces.
Okay, actually, there are 3 essential rules:
Color – as mentioned above, color is important. The darker the green, the higher the anthocyanin – a powerful antioxidant (the same one you find in dark berries – your best defense against cancer).
Leaf tightness – leaves that grow loose have more anthocyanin in them than leaves that don’t. Anthocyanin for plants is like sunscreen for us, it protects leaves for burning under the sun’s rays. Looser leaves mean a darker color, so we come back to number 1.
Freshness – grab lettuce that isn’t processed, stuff in containers and bags isn’t as fresh as the kinds you can buy in bunches/as a head. If it’s the dead of winter and everything is being imported from Mexico, look for lettuce that isn’t wilting or yellowing.
So What Should You Buy Instead?
Pick dark, loose leaf lettuces, red is best. Then go for the darkest greens you can find: think kale and spinach. Romaine and Bibb are a middling level of nutritious, with cabbage and crisphead varieties at the bottom of the list.
And remember, when leaves come tightly wrapped, the outer layers are the healthiest ones, so don’t peel them off and throw them away – just give them a good scrub with your favorite veggie cleaner and keep them in your salad.
Robinson, Jo. Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. Hachette Book Group. New York, NY. May, 2014.