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Health / Safety

Salad greens mix it up

August 21, 2009

Iceberg lettuce used to be the primary choice for salad greens. I chuckled recently when I read about a retro salad recipe - an iceberg lettuce wedge covered with a creamy dressing. As a child I remember that as the salad for special dinners. Today, there are many varieties of greens to choose from whether you're in the produce section or attempting to decipher salad options on the menu.

Editor's note:  The following column was written by Shirley Perryman. Perryman is an Extension specialist in the Colorado State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences. Perryman also is a registered dietician. 

Varieties of greens

Salad greens commonly available offer a nice range of color, texture and flavors but if you're not familiar with lettuce lingo, you may feel like you're learning a foreign language.

  • Mesclun includes a mix of tender baby greens. The traditional mix includes chervil, arugula, leafy lettuces and endive in equal proportions. Mesclun originated in Provencal France, but in today’s market Mesclun mixes include greens such as mustards, cresses and parsley as well as wild greens and all kinds of lettuce. The mix of greens is intended to impact how it looks and tastes. The flavors in this colorful mix range to bitter, sweet and tangy and combine both crunchy and silky textures.
  • Radicchio looks like a small loose-head cabbage with its red leaves with white veins. It has a bitter taste.
  • Arugula is a member of the mustard family and it contributes a peppery and tangy flavor.

Safe handling procedures

Unfortunately, there continue to be E. coli outbreaks linked to salad greens including lettuce and spinach. In addition to refrigerating salad greens, you’ll need to follow some safe handling procedures to help avoid illness.

  • After purchasing greens keep them separate from raw meat and poultry to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination. Follow this same rule when preparing other ingredients for salads by keeping cutting boards for salad ingredients and raw meat separate.
  • Wash salad greens either by immersing them in cold water or running cold water over the leaves. Using produce washes is an unnecessary added expense; they have only been shown to be minimally effective in diminishing bacteria,
  • Pre-packaged salad greens are increasingly popular due to convenience but are they safe to eat without washing? The possibility does exist for contamination prior to packaging both in the field and during processing. Even when bags are labeled “triple-washed” the safest practice is to wash these greens at home to remove the possibility of bacteria. This is especially important for pregnant women, young children, the elderly and others with compromised immune systems.

Nutritional benefits

In addition to adding a nice crunch to a meal, salad greens have nutritional benefits.

  • Researchers recently found that those over the age of 65 who ate three servings of green leafy vegetables a day increased the probability of continued mental function 40 percent longer than those who ate only one serving daily. The beneficial effect was equivalent to functioning as if they were five years younger.
  • There is some evidence that lutein and zeaxanthin in leafy greens may protect your eyes from sun damage as you age.
  • Leafy greens are loaded with vitamin K which plays a role in bone health. It may be linked to increasing bone density and minimizing hip fractures.

Careful what you add on top of leafy greens

Finally, if you think salads are the healthiest choice, you should know it’s not a given. The bottom line depends on what you add on top of those leafy greens. Consider your options and recognize that certain choices will pile on the calories and increase the sodium fast.

To ensure the healthiest salad amply fill your bowl with greens and assorted veggies, sprinkle with a few extras and lightly drizzle with dressing - often the largest calorie culprit of all.


For more information consult the following Colorado State University Extension fact sheet, “Health Benefits and Safe Handling of Salad Greens.”

Contact: Shirley Perrman