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Wilburn: Leafy greens pack in nutrients
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Tips for healthier salads

  • Baby greens tend to be more tender, nutritious and milder in flavor than mature greens.
  • Use less dressing to enjoy the flavor of the salad greens. Choose fat-free dressings for an even healthier choice.
  • Avoid storing lettuce with apples, pears or bananas. These fruits release ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent, that will cause the lettuce to develop brown spots and decay quickly. Toss lettuce that looks slimy or has black spots. The slime is the residue of bacterial decomposition and the black spots are usually mold.

Green leaves are nutrient rich because they contain the light-catching, energy-converting machinery of plants.

Salad greens contain Vitamin A, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, folate, fiber and phytonutrients. Leafy vegetables are a good choice for a healthy diet because they do not contain cholesterol and are naturally low in calories and sodium.

Many of the health benefits that leafy greens provide come from phytonutrients, unique compounds that provide protection for plants. These compounds are becoming recognized as part of a nutritious diet that promotes long-term health. Phytonutrients can act as antioxidants, which help to prevent chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Lettuce, the most commonly consumed leafy vegetable, provides about seven calories per 1 cup serving. When it comes to satisfying your appetite, it helps to eat foods high in volume but low in calories like lettuce.

Types of lettuce

Many types of lettuce are available in the grocery store and may be purchased by the head or as prepackaged salad greens. Different types have slightly different flavors. Some have a mild flavor and crisp texture; others have a slightly bitter or tangy flavor that adds a nice bite to mixed salads.

Next time you are shopping, be adventurous and try a variety of flavors, colors and textures. Have you tried green leaf, red leaf, Romaine, French Batavia, arugula, Bok Choy, Belgian or curly endive, dandelion greens, escarole, lambs lettuce, mesclun, oriental greens, radicchio, spinach or watercress?

There are endless choices besides the common iceberg lettuce.

Safe handling and storage

When shopping, pack fresh salad greens in plastic bags so they are kept separate from other groceries, especially raw meats and poultry. Refrigerate salad greens at 35 to 40 F within two hours of purchasing. Store in a plastic bag or lettuce keeper.

Always wash hands before preparing salads and make sure you are working with a clean cutting board. Wash lettuce just before using by running cold water over leaves. Leaves can be difficult to clean so immersing the leaves in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes helps loosen sand and dirt. Follow this by a clean water rinse.

After washing, blot dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to remove excess moisture. Tear lettuce leaves into pieces. If practical, do not slice lettuce leaves; cut leaves release an ascorbic acid oxidase, which destroys vitamin C. Cut edges also discolor quickly.

Because lettuce and other salad greens are very perishable, they should be used within one week after purchase.

Bagged salads can be convenient but added processing steps like cutting and mixing can increase the likelihood of contamination with microorganisms. To reduce the risk of foodborne illness with bagged salads, keep them refrigerated at 35 to 40 F, observe "Use By" dates marked on the package and rinse well before eating, removing any damaged or spoiled leaves.

Adapted from Colorado State University

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.