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The Bagged Lettuce Backlash: Say It Isn't So!

My heart sank when I saw this Mother Jones headline yesterday: "The Truth About Bagged Lettuce."

The piece, unfortunately, is what I feared: a bunch of new concerns being raised about the kind of lettuce I've learned to love: pre-packaged and easy-to-use. It enables my family to eat far more, and more varied, greens than we would if I had to clean and tear them myself.

baby kale

In the post, Kiera Butler cites Jo Robinson, author of the new book "Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health," who recently "trash bagged lettuce on Fresh Air:"

"Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old," said Robinson ruefully. "They're not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them." Instead, she suggested, I should buy my lettuce whole and coddle it a bit. "If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it—and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it—you're going to increase the antioxidant activity…fourfold."

Ouch.

Personally, I favor the triple-washed boxed lettuce, which may or may not be any better from an antioxidant perspective.

Either way, Butler lays out the environmental argument against bagged lettuce (excessive water use in some cases), as well as the threat of all kinds of contaminants — remember that organic baby spinach recall earlier this year due to possible E. coli contamination?

Despite all of this, I think I'll take my chances. But to reinforce my own inclinations, I spoke with Sean Cash, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

Cash raised all the same concerns: some possible slight breakdown in Vitamin C in bagged lettuce, a low level of E. coli risk, more plastic packaging in the environment, concerns over excessive water use in places like Salinas, Calif. where drought is an ongoing problem.

But overall, Cash said, these worries are pretty much trumped by the health benefits of just eating lots of lettuce, particularly if it means the difference between having it often or not at all.

"Salad is great to eat and the benefits of salad outweigh some of these other health concerns," he said. "Compared to other levels of processing we accept in our food, bagged salad seems misplaced as a primary concern."

So what does Cash do — lettuce-wise — when he's home alone? Probably what many of the rest of us do depending on mood and the availability of general food-prep leisure time. "I wash the head of lettuce sometimes," he said. "And sometimes I buy the packaged."

This program aired on July 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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