Bagged greens are convenient, for sure, but are they worth it?
I am not a lazy cook. But the pleasures I derive from making tortillas and pasta from scratch do not seem to translate to prepping leafy greens. Likely because they transform so little in the hands, going from a head of gritty lettuce to a bowl of clean leaves is just not that satisfying for me – there’s minimal kitchen alchemy there.
Given the proliferation of bags upon bags of pre-washed packaged greens in the supermarket produce section, I know I’m not alone. How easy to buy a bag, open, eat. But there’s too much about them that doesn’t sit right with me … so I pass them by, a bit wistfully, and convince myself that the act of proper kitchen prep work is a wonderfully zen pastime.
But the truth is, even though I might have fun complaining, it’s not a big deal and it’s so worth it (and actually can be really lovely). While packaged salads may be better than not eating greens at all, there are plenty of reasons why they pale in comparison. Consider the following:
1. You lose the good stuffJo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, told NPR, "Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old. They're not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them." She advises, "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."
2. Think of the waterKiera Butler at Mother Jones dug into the environmental impact of bagged lettuce and talked to scientist Gidon Eshel from Bard College's Center for Environmental Policy. He told her that most companies triple wash their packaged greens. "What I know is that the bagged, triple-washed variety is enormously water costly," Eshel said. "I visited such an operation and saw for myself. I don't have numbers sadly, but the washing was just staggering."
Eshel says that where the washing happens is key; the Northeast can spare the water. "If, on the other hand, it's in [California's] Central Valley, then it most likely becomes the single most important environmental consideration, and the triple-washed thing becomes very difficult to defend." Butler notes that 90 percent of U.S. lettuce is produced in California and Arizona.
3. Heed the wasteSean Cash, an associate professor of agriculture, food, and the environment at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition and Science and Policy, told Butler that bagged salads require much more mechanical prep work than a simple head of lettuce. "The processing and packaging of bagged salad would still outweigh the cost of making the plastic bags that a consumer might use at the store," Cash says. "And it's not clear to me that for bagged salad there would be less food waste at an industrial processor (although they may handle it more efficiently)."
A processing facility uses all that water plus electricity to run. Meanwhile, a shopper may choose not to use a plastic bag at all for a head of lettuce, thereby obviating that part of the packaging chain all together.
4. Free prize included?You might get more than you bargained for. The good news for one California woman is that she can be assured her choice of bagged salad was organic and uncut – as confirmed by the live frog she found in her package of greens. After recovering from the startle, she kept the frog and named it Dave.
5. Less added chemicals are betterLettuce, spinach, kale and collard greens all score in the top 16 for chemical load in EWG’sannual ranking of pesticide residues. Conventional greens will likely have equal pesticide loads regardless if they’re pre-packaged or not, but there are other chemicals to consider as well. I didn’t find any huge alarms being raised for the commercial-scale washing with chlorinated water (“a solution of a greater concentration than the local swimming pool,” notes The Independent) that packaged greens endure, but if you are sensitive to chemicals, then it may be something to ponder. Many of us already get chlorine in municipal drinking water, too much of which can lead to irritating effects to their eyes and nose as well as stomach discomfort, according to the EPA.
6. It doesn't nurture a connection to foodOK, this one may be me being touchy-feely Earth mama, but here goes. We've lost so much connection to our food and where it's grown. We get little tidy packets of meat on a plastic tray wrapped in more plastic – it was once part of an animal, yet who even thinks of that? Food becomes so abstract in the modern world; for animals especially, what a tragic way to go. I'm not saying that a head of romaine lettuce needs to be blessed before we eat it, but when we hold it in our hands and feel its weight and texture, tear off its leaves and see its beautiful colors, smell the soil that may still be clinging to its crevices ... we are one step closer to appreciating the bounty of what Mother Nature provides for us. The more we just rip open a plastic package and blindly eat pre-made food the further we get from nature, and that feels dangerous to me. Is that a stretch? (And I know I griped about the tedium of washing produce at the beginning, call it poetic license ... it really can be a beautiful thing.)
7. And … it may still be dirty, and make you sickAnd after all that, it likely still needs to be washed anyway. One study from the University of California, Riverside found that because of the nooks and crannies in triple-washed baby spinach leaves, upwards of 90 percent of adhered bacteria were observed to remain attached to and survive on the leaf surface. As a result, they say, the leaves travel through the processing facility after being rinsed and the bacteria may continue to live, grow, spread, and contaminate other leaves and surfaces within the site. "In a sense the leaf is protecting the bacteria and allowing it to spread," says Nichola M. Kinsinger. "It was surprising to discover how the leaf surface formed micro-environments that reduce the bleach concentration and in this case the very disinfection processes intended to clean, remove, and prevent contamination was found to be the potential pathway to amplifying foodborne outbreaks."
Likewise, a Consumer Reports look at 208 pre-washed salad mixes found, "bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination – in some cases, at rather high levels."
And there are continued outbreaks of illness related to bagged lettuce. The outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 that began in March of 2018 and is still active as of this update in April, has federal authorities urging people who purchased chopped romaine lettuce in the U.S. to toss it because it could make them sick.
So really, what's the point of supposedly clean lettuce that isn't really clean at all?
This updated article was originally published in 2015.