James Werrell

James Werrell: Uncovering the truth about ‘nutritional’ salads

If you need to lose a few pounds but you don’t always reach for the healthiest items in your refrigerator and, in fact, you just had leftover pizza for breakfast, what do you do? Why, you eat a salad!

Everyone knows that. Salad restores not only your nutritional balance but also your mental equilibrium.

A nice salad with low-fat ranch dressing and maybe a sunflower seed or two washes away the guilt of the two slices of unheated pepperoni-and-sausage pizza you wolfed down with your morning coffee. The salad made everything right again.

But what if it didn’t? What if salads aren’t the wonderful, green, crunchy, perfect health food, the antidote to bad habits, the virtuous bowl of goodness we have been led to believe?

I’m not talking about the trick “salads” we find at fast-food joints and salad bars. We’re all hip to that con: Take a little lettuce and load it up with bacon bits, cheese, black olives and croutons, then drench it in thousand island dressing and give yourself points for not ordering the pasta.

No, I’m talking about the noble, vitamin-rich, green salad that screams rectitude and restraint, the chopped romaine dressed with a simple vinaigrette and perhaps a dusting of Parmesan. It has to be good for both the body and soul, right?

Well, maybe not. Tamar Haspel, a food and science writer who also farms oysters on Cape Cod, has written a fascinating piece for the Washington Post. In the article, “Why salad is so overrated,” she makes a convincing case that salad “has almost nothing going for it.”

Lettuce, she writes, “occupies precious crop acreage, requires fossil fuels to be shipped, refrigerated, around the world, and adds nothing but crunch to the plate.” Lettuce, iceberg in particular, as well as common salad ingredients such as cucumbers, radishes and celery, are made up almost entirely of water and rank among the vegetables with the lowest nutritional value of all.

Haspel notes the difference between lettuce and other green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Collards contain 90 percent water, but once the water is cooked out, what remains is much more nutritious than raw lettuce.

Broccoli, green beans, tomatoes, cabbage and other denser vegetables also pack a lot of nutrition. But lettuce, Haspel writes, “is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table.”

I am receptive to theories about food that defy the conventional wisdom or at least what has passed for good nutritional advice for the past 50 years or so. So, I gobble up articles about how eggs and cheese are good for us, how butter is better than margarine, how salt can be our friend.

But I admit to being poleaxed by the proposition that lettuce not only is a nutritional weakling but also that it takes up cropland that could be used to grow something much healthier. I am surprised, yes, but also delighted because this provides the perfect retort to the vegans who preach against the evils of beef.

The anti-beef vigilantes love to point out that cattle consume millions of pounds of grain, require oceans of water, take up acres of pasture space, produce tons of waste, including ozone-killing methane, and must be slaughtered and shipped, using fossil fuels. Why not just grow plants instead?

But apparently much the same argument can be made against lettuce. It takes up a lot of space; it’s not nutritionally dense; it requires huge amounts of water; and it has to be shipped in refrigerated containers.

Ultimately, there is only one truly valid argument for growing lettuce: We like the way it tastes. Which, essentially, also is the bottom-line argument for raising beef cattle.

Thank you, Ms Haspel. If you’re in town, I’d love to cook you a steak – and maybe even serve a nice salad on the side.

James Werrell, editor of the Opinion page, can be reached at 803-329-4081 or jwerrell@heraldonline.com.