According to the USDA, Americans consumer more servings of Iceberg lettuce per week than all other fresh vegetables combined, with the exception of white potatoes. An excellent way to begin a healthier lifestyle is to add more nutrient dense rich greens to your diet. You will find varieties at your local supermarket and even more healthier greens at your local farmer’s market. In this blog, you will learn ways to pick, prepare, store and serve these lettuce greens.
The Best Way To Choose Your Lettuce
When shopping for different types of lettuce, not all are labeled at the supermarket. It’s not like going to the apple section and knowing if your picking a Gala, Jazz, Honeycrisp or Fuji since it’s usually posted on the sign. But, fortunately there are a few ways to pick out your greens that are not always labeled but, contain the most nutrition. Let’s start by talking about lettuce.
There are two recognizable traits in knowing that you are picking a lettuce with higher phytonutrient content. First is its color. As a general rule, the darker the color, the higher the phytonutrient content is. But the most nutrient dense lettuce is not green but instead purple, red, or reddish brown.
The phytonutrient that causes theses types of lettuce to turn these colors is anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that help with anti-cancer benefits, anti-inflammatory benefits, slowing age-related memory loss, and even declining the negative effects from consuming high sugar and high fat foods. Anthocyanins is also the reasoning behind why blueberries are blue and raspberries are red as well.
So, if you can’t find purple, reddish brown color lettuce or not ready to try them out, then the next most nutritious color is to find dark green lettuce. The dark green color is due to the phytonutrient lutein, which is another great antioxidant that aids to protect eye health and reduce inflammation. As another general rule, lettuce that hues light green in color are not nutrient dense and contain the fewest amounts of health benefits. So, try to ditch the Iceberg lettuce.
Alright so for the second recognizable trait to look for is the arrangement of leaves on the lettuce. If the lettuce plant is tightly wrapped up such as Iceberg, cabbage, and other crisp-headed varieties, the phytonutrient levels tend to be very low. If the lettuce plant contains both open and wrapped up leaves such as Romaine lettuce, then it contains a moderate amount of phytonutrients.
The reasoning for the different varieties of the leaves arrangements on the plant is due to the sun’s influence. The sun helps lettuce to grow and release carbohydrates but the influence of the sun’s UV rays can also destroy the plants. Loose-leaf lettuce gets the most amount of UV rays, so these plants need to create extra phytonutrients to protect themselves.
Its somewhat like a sunscreen but its botanical. So, when we consume these nutrient dense loose-leaf lettuce, we also absorb their extra phytonutrients which in return becomes part of our own self-defense system. The plants protection becomes our own protection. Lettuce such as crisphead, cabbage, iceberg, and romaine can be tightly compacted so they slack off on making extra phytonutrients because the sun’s UV rays can’t get through. So, try to ditch these varieties of lettuce.
Now you have a better understanding of how to pick out the best varieties of lettuce. Try to choose loose-leaf varieties with the most intense color, preferably red, purple or dark green. Keep in mind, purchasing whole heads of lettuce are fresher than packaged greens or precut lettuce.
What’s About Prepackaged Lettuce?
Packages that read “triple-washed” are very popular in US markets. Forty-percent of California’s grown salad greens are now packed into bags. This prepacked salad has become very convenient for the consumer and people have been eating more salads as a result.
All bags containing mixed greens contain higher phytonutrients that salads made with iceberg or romaine.
Choose bags containing the variety of dark green, red, and purple leaves inside to get the maximum health benefits. But, before picking out your prepackaged greens, look first for any discolor like yellowish leaves and read the use-by date. Packages with the most distant dates are the freshest and may be found toward the back of the first seen packages on the isle.
The Best Way to Store Lettuce.
Most of us store our lettuce in the plastic bag we get from the store and others place them in sealed zip lock bags or containers. Neither of these practices are the proper way to store your fresh lettuce.
If you spend ten to fifteen minutes to prepare your fresh salad greens before placing them into your refrigerator, they will retain their freshness longer as well as retain their health benefits for longer.
As soon as you get home with your lettuce, pull of the leaves, rinse them, and soak them for ten minutes in very cold water. The cold-water temperature slows down the aging process of the lettuce and also keeps them crisp.
After the ten minutes is up, dry them out with a paper towel. Next, place the greens into a resealable plastic bag, squeeze out as much air as possible, then seal the bag. Use a needle or a pin to prick the bag with evenly spaced holes. Ten small holes for a smaller zip lock bag and twenty for larger bags. This bag is called a microperforated bag.
Place the now prepared lettuce greens into one of the crisper drawers in your refrigerator. The reasoning for the pricked holes is to provide the ideal level of humidity and exchanges of gases inside your refrigerator. Your green lettuce needs to breathe.
Choose Extra Nutritious Non-Lettuce Varieties
The most nutritious greens are not always a part of the lettuce family. Some come from the cabbage family, some are herbs and others are close related to lettuce like cousins. They can have more powerful flavors such as bitterness or spiciness, but the more you add to your salad concoction, the more health benefits you gain. For this blog, I will be only writing about a few of my favorite green varieties that I like to add to my salads.
Arugula is a highly packed phytonutrient green that comes from the cabbage family. Arugula’s phytonutrient is called glucosinolates with contains anti-cancer properties.
Arugula contains higher amounts of antioxidants than most green lettuce but red lettuce tops it. Arugula also contains a high amount of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, folate and vitamin E.
Arugula tends to decay quicker, so choose the freshest in store. Look for firm leaves that are a rich dark green color and contains little odor. You can store arugula the same way as you store you lettuce in a microperforated bag and inside your crisper drawer of your fridge.
Arugula has a spicier peppery flavor, so if you don’t like the taste, try mixing it with milder greens in your salad. Eat arugula raw to receive the most health benefits or steam them. Don’t ever boil arugula because you will loose more than half of the glucosinolates phytonutrients in the water. You can get creative in the kitchen to find out the best way that you like to enjoy arugula.
Tip: steam arugula along with kale, spinach, broccoli sprouts and two scrambled eggs for a nice nutrient dense breakfast.
Radicchio comes from the chicory family. It has bright magenta leaves containing white color veins and forms a loose head.
Radicchio contains four times more antioxidants compared to romaine lettuce. Radicchio is bitter flavor but the nutrition value is excellent. Adding more radicchio to your diet is a healthy choice. Mix it into your salads.
Spinach is the most popular dark green vegetable and is high in antioxidants than most lettuce. Spinach is a close cousin to the lettuce family. Similar the dark green lettuce greens, spinach contain the phytonutrient lutein which helps protection of the eyes, reduction of inflammation, and anti-aging properties.
Spinach has become a popular green and is being produced in larger quantities. Typically, spinach is bagged as loose greens or baby spinach. But, to receive the most nutrient dense benefits buy whole spinach in bunches rather than bagged leaves.
The longer the bag has been on a shelf the lower the antioxidant content is. You want to look for mid-sized spinach leaves rather than baby leaves or larger leaves. Mid-sized spinach leaves contain the highest amount of phytonutrients.
You also want to prepare and store spinach as you do with lettuce. Spinach tends to decay quicker so try to eat as soon as possible. The best way to consume spinach is either raw or steam. Do not boil because you will loose most of the phytonutrients in the water. You would be better off drinking the water than eating the spinach.
Healthy Alternative Salad Dressings
A salad is never completed without some sort of dressing. There are so many convenient already prepared salad dressings at your local grocery store but, before purchasing the bottle make sure you read the ingredient list.
Most can contain a high amount of sodium or refined sugars or both. The term “natural flavors” does not mean healthy. There can be additives and chemical enhancers that should be avoided. Look for a dressing that contains wholesome ingredients.
When in doubt, don’t buy the commercial dressing but create your own. Extra virgin olive oil is the best oil to use. For even a more healthier olive oil, make sure the label reads unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. Many of the olive oils are filtered so they loose certain compounds.
One of these lost compounds is called squalene which has been proven to help protect you skin from UV damage. Also, unfiltered olive oil will last longer because the antioxidant contents protect the oil from oxidizing turning the oil rancid. Store your olive oil in a sealed container in a dark cool place such as your cupboard.
Other dressings you can use are apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and fresh lemon juice which are all great sources for flavor as well as containing antioxidants. Sample different types of brands of olive oils and vinegar to find out which you enjoy best. Also, the newcomer Avocado oil has become a big hit in oils due to it high content of monounsaturated fats.
Tip: Avocado oil goes great as a salad dressing with some lemon juice, Himalayan salt, pepper, and turmeric powder.
Tips to Remember
- Choose purple, red, reddish brown, or dark green loose-leaf variations
- Spend 10-15 minutes preparing your lettuce to preserve its flavor and nutrients
- Enrich your salads with extra-nutritious non-lettuce varieties
- Choose prepackaged salad bags of mixed greens with the most colorful, freshest leaves
- Unfiltered extra virgin olive oil is one of the best oils to use in a salad dressing