Going green

Yesterday I told you about how corn has become one of the most unnatural “natural” foods. So if you decide to cut back on the corn-on-the-cob this summer, I thought I’d give you some alternatives to serve alongside your burgers.

How about a nice, fresh, green salad?

But before you reach for that bag of iceberg lettuce, allow me to share some key facts that will help you get the most nutritional “bang for your buck.”

You see, the real food scientists at the USDA regularly sample the nutritional content of popular fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly, they have found that the nutritional content has consistently declined each decade since WWII.

Unfortunately, the “higher-ups” at the USDA and in the U.S. government don’t seem to be aware of this. Or they don’t care. Because exhorting the public to eat more vegetables won’t amount to a proverbial hill of beans, if the vegetables we eat contain fewer and fewer healthy nutrients with each passing year.

Put another way,  we can’t improve our health by eating more vegetables if the vegetables we eat don’t contain as many nutrients as they did 50 years ago.

So first, let’s look at lettuce. Unfortunately, we can’t just give a green light to all varieties of “lettuce.” Because they’re not all created equal.

Once called “crisp head,” iceberg lettuce is actually the most popular variety sold today. You probably see head after head, or bag upon bag, of it when you visit the grocery store. But its nutrient level has sunk so low, it now contains essentially zero measurable micronutrients. Short of providing one gram of fiber per serving, it acts mainly as a vehicle for salad dressing–many of which are far from healthy.

Instead, look for arugula, also called the “salad rocket.” Farmers only domesticated arugula in the 1970s, so it is still very similar to its wild ancestor. And considering that cultivation of most fruits and vegetables occurred hundreds or even thousands of years ago, arugula is an extremely young “domesticated” green. As such, it has kept its natural nutritional value.

Unlike iceberg lettuce and many other green lettuces, arugula greens are rich in cancer-fighting compounds and higher in antioxidant activity. Yes, they do have a slightly bitter taste. But this tells you that arugula is full of phytonutrients.

And it’s a very green. But this is a sign of the chlorophyll, together with all the other phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins and carotenoids.

Arugula does measure relatively low in vitamins A and C. It’s also low in calcium and iron. As I have explained before, very few fruits and vegetables are good sources of fat-soluble vitamins, such as D, and minerals, such as calcium. That’s one reason why a diverse diet of many different foods, including greens and healthy meats, is important for optimal human nutrition.

But being low in iron is actually a good thing for most people. As I’ve said before, I published research that showed too much iron increases the risk of cancer. And too much iron appears to raise the risk of many other chronic diseases as well. (Too many dieticians, nutritionists and physicians still don’t get that point. Thankfully, some in the supplement industry have caught on.)

Arugula on its own is already vastly healthier than iceberg lettuce. But adding some additional greens to your salad won’t just make it more interesting—it will also enhance the diversity and health benefits.

To get more vitamin A, add some leaves of butter lettuce (Bibb and Boston varieties) to your salad. It also has a small amount of calcium and iron.

You may not think of adding fresh kale to your salads, but you should. It’s a nutritional powerhouse. Like other members of the cabbage family, kale has a number of anti-cancer ingredients. But unlike other members of the cabbage family, you don’t have to cook or ferment it (like making sauerkraut) to release its nutrients or make it digestible. You can add kale to your salad raw. A one-cup serving of kale provides the RDA for both vitamins A and C. (Of course, I don’t recommend stopping at the RDA amount, but it’s a good start.)

Red and green leaf lettuce has a relatively mild taste. Unfortunately, this is a sign that many of its natural nutrients have been diluted or lost. However, it is remains relatively high in pro-vitamin A and vitamin K.

Romaine lettuce is a good source of the important B vitamin folic acid. It is also rich in pro-vitamin A and vitamin K. Spinach is rich in vitamins A, C, and K. And it also contains more folic acid.

Swiss chard is another important, yet overlooked, salad green. Just pull off a few fresh leaves from the bunch, chop them up, and mix them into your salad. As a member of the beet family, Swiss chard has some unique, powerful antioxidant constituents. It is also high in vitamins A, C and K.

You may think of watercress, like parsley, as merely a garnish. But don’t leave these “garnish” greens on your plate. They are more nutritious than romaine, red, and green leaf lettuces. Just one serving  of watercress provides the entire RDA of  vitamin K. And half the daily requirements of vitamins A and C. And it even gives you 10 percent of your daily calcium requirement. (Again, RDAs are typically far too low, but watercress can help give you a good head start on reaching optimal intake levels.)

And here’s some more good news about salad greens: You can get all this nutrition with very few calories per serving. Kale and spinach have more nutrients and more calories, with 30 to 40 calories per serving. But the rest of these greens have only 10 to 15 calories per serving.

So, this summer, make your salads diverse. They will burst with flavor. And you’ll get a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.

And remember, to make salads packed with the most nutrients, and the fewest dangerous contaminants always go organic. This produce has the best shot at containing more of its original nutritional content. (Just skip the “organic” iceberg lettuce. You might as well buy organic ice.)