And other facts the FDA isn’t telling you

By Paula Johnson

Photo: It’s science: lettuce and other vegetables lack the nutritional value humans need to stay happy and healthy

Alarming headline? It certainly is, and you should read on to find out the seriousness of our lack of understanding of how vegetables—long touted as the healthiest way to eat—are letting us down. How is this possible? In two ways: what they contain, which is being proven to be harmful to us, and by what they don’t contain, which, fortunately, food science has found ways to add back in to our daily dietary equation. Making one simple change to your diet—adding a salad almost every day—can offer little to no health benefits, not to mention can actually hurt you. And let’s look at the time factor. It takes a ridiculous amount of time to wash and dry, chop, mix, and dress salad greens, and who has that kind of time nowadays? A minor point, granted, in the face of salad’s nutritional charlatanism, but one to consider nonetheless.

Lettuce Not

Let’s begin with why your lettuce is letting you down and contributing to dietary peril. First of all, it’s been proven, time and time again, that we can’t digest lettuce. Personally, I want food I can digest, and have long been suspicious of the mounds of greens that restaurants and well meaning friends have foisted upon me. Since it makes us feel fuller (owing to that not digestible thing) we stop eating before we should, leaving insufficient room for the “heavier,” more satisfying foods we should be considering, such as pastas (particularly those with cream sauces) and even pizza (particularly those topped generously with cheese and processed meats). Insidiously starving us without our knowledge is what salads are doing.

But don’t take my word for it. Nutrition researchers Charles Benbrook and colleague Donald Davis developed a nutrient quality index—a way to rate foods based on how many 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 the highly forgettable eggplant. Those foods’ nutritional profile can be partly explained by one simple fact: they’re almost all water.


Then there’s this: although water figures prominently in just about every vegetable (the sweet potato, one of the least watery, is still a whopping 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 and is only marginally more nutritious. Feeling hungry after that salad? No wonder.

What about the fact that if you are eating salad you aren’t eating fat? Well, you should be, and not just a little. Eating a little good fat (like the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, avocado, and nuts) with your vegetables appears to help your body absorb protective phytochemicals, like lycopene from tomatoes and lutein from dark green vegetables. So, since those vegetables aren’t truly pulling their weight, other than in water, more oils and nuts, and even other fatty foods, such as bacon, should be added liberally.

Happy Fat

A recent study from Ohio State University measured how well the body absorbed phytochemicals after people ate a salad of lettuce, carrots, and spinach, with or without 2 1/2 tablespoons of avocado. The avocado-eaters absorbed eight times more alpha-carotene and more than 13 times more beta-carotene (both of which are thought to help protect against cancer and heart disease) than the group eating salads without avocado. They then experimented with adding bacon plus a high fat blue cheese dressing to the avocado salad, and found that those who ate this salad composition experienced 32 times the absorption rate. And, because this salad was much more delicious, there was a release in the brain of two brain chemicals linked to happiness and well-being, oxytocin and serotonin. Thus, it’s highly plausible that lettuce is a contributing culprit in cases of depression and anxiety.

Add It Up

What we haven’t examined yet is the role that food science can play in helping to dethrone iceberg—decapitate that unworthy head, if you will—from its wrongly elevated status as “good for you.” Nutritional analysis of not just salad vegetables, but all vegetables, has shown them to be lacking. Photosynthesis is fine for plants but not for us, and thus the efforts of modern food science are to our rescue.

Take preservatives to start. Inferior fresh or “unenhanced,” as I prefer, have none. But what do preservatives do? They preserve you. Preservatives are the answer to slowing down deterioration. What about additives? Well, the long list of additives you see on packaged, frozen, and canned foods, particularly vegetables, is your insurance that things are added to make up for deficits. These ingredients, which are vital to your health, do not occur in fresh, organic vegetables. But thanks to laboratory science, this is no longer
a problem.

No one is saying don’t eat vegetables. If you do, choose ones that have been enhanced by modern technology and food production methods.

What is the takeaway from this? Unenhanced produce is just that, and needs to be enhanced if we are to survive this health crisis. The salad bar is worse than the wine bar. Remember, wine, full of antioxidants, is far superior to water, which is sadly most of what vegetables contain. If you want to be healthy, avoid them, and certainly avoid salad.

For more information on salad nutrition, please think more critically about what you read.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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