In Defense of Salad

CC BY 2.0. Jessica Spengler

Who doesn't love a great salad? And I'm not talking about nasty iceberg wedges.

A recent article in the Washington Post attacked salads, calling them “so overrated.” Writer Tamar Haspel called on eaters to reject salads because “salad vegetables are pitifully low in nutrition” and they “fool dieters into making bad choices.” She wrote that lettuce is prone to food-borne bacteria, is resource-intensive to grow, ship, and keep, and is the greatest source of vegetable food waste (a horrific 1 billion pounds of lettuce are tossed annually in the United States. Her conclusion? “Save the planet, skip the salad.”

There is a lot wrong with this argument. Salad does have some issues, but that doesn’t warrant an attempt to erase the entire food category.

When it comes to nutrition, not all salad greens are created equal. Iceberg lettuce, for some reason, is the main target in Haspel’s article; she describes wedge salads made with radishes, bacon, and blue-cheese dressing. Iceberg is notorious for its lack of nutrition, but there are many salad-eaters out there who opt for healthier greens. Purple-red and dark green lettuces, spinach, kale, arugula, mixed greens, and sprouts are mainstays in my house that pack an antioxidant-laden punch.

Salad can be the best way to get vegetable-shunning eaters to get some greens. Not everyone can handle sautéed beet tops and raw kohlrabi, but salad is a universal crowd-pleaser. It provides valuable vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids, as well as the roughage needed for regularity.

Salads have evolved way beyond iceberg wedges. To be honest, I’ve never eaten an iceberg wedge before. My salads feature tasty, healthy additions such as sunflower seeds, toasted walnuts, sliced peaches and blueberries, feta and goat cheese, alfalfa sprouts, pea shoots, homemade dressings, and loads of other vegetables, such as avocado, radishes, corn, peppers, and cucumbers.

Lettuce is resource-intensive to grow, but it’s not so bad if you eat it seasonally. Lettuce should not be served in the cold, snowy depths of January; that’s the season for cabbage salads. Lettuce, rather, is a summer food, refreshing and light. If it’s bought from local, organic farms and eaten at its peak (which is a relatively short season), then the ecological cost of transportation and refrigeration will be reduced. As I’ve learned from personal experience, you’ll be so thrilled to have lettuce after interminable months of carrot-and-cabbage coleslaw that you’ll be less likely to let it go to waste!

Don’t blame restaurants for “fooling dieters”! If dieters fail to recognize from a menu description that a salad is suspiciously decadent, that’s their own problem. Chefs should not be tasked with providing the healthiest version of every dish (unless that is a restaurant’s particular specialty); they offer a culinary experience and save people the hassle of preparing their own food. A dieter’s best bet is to cook from scratch if they are serious about knowing what’s in their food.