Three Dimensions of Salad as Junk Food

What do you see when you look hard at all those “healthy” salads we’re eating? In the Washington Post this week, Tamar Haspel proposed thinking of salad as junk food that’s neither good for you nor the planet. Never afraid of sparking debate, Haspel lays out her concerns along three dimensions

  • Nutrtional Value. Calling salad “pitifully low in nutrition,” she focuses on iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, and celery and notes that they are among the lowest ranking vegetables on a nutrition quality index. This is because, even more than other vegetables, they are mostly water.
  • Health Washing. Haspel points out that many, if not most, restaurant salads serve only to help people rationalize unhealthy menu choices. This can range from a diner at McDonald’s pairing a side salad with a Big Mac and fries to the oriental chicken salad at Applebee’s that delivers 1,400 calories by itself. It’s one of their longstanding top sellers.
  • Environmental Impact. Because salads are mostly (95-97%) water, enormous amounts of fossil fuels serve primarily to transport and refrigerate water, says Haspel. Worse, salads are the leading source of food waste. If that’s not enough, consider that green leafy vegetables are responsible for about a quarter of all food-borne illnesses every year.

Predictably, Haspel stirred up lots of disagreement (it’s good for the web traffic). Susan Burke March, a leading dietitian in weight management, observed that:

It’s a headline in search of a story. Salad vegetables contain so much nutrition and fiber. Yes, iceberg lettuce is the least nuritious of the bunch, but I think salad is a smart strategy — high fiber, low cal, full of antioxidants. Of course, restaurant salads are notorious for their excessive calories — not from vegetables but from additions like dressings, cheese, croutons, and meats. The salt and calories from fat can really add up. In working with clients as a weight management dietitian, I recommend salads. I talk strategies and recipes, like trying different and more nutritious greens, and also adding crunch with different veggies.

On a related note in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Marc Adams and colleagues recently pointed out just how thin the evidence base is for promoting salad bars in schools. They said:

The lack of research should not be interpreted to mean that salad bars have no positive effect on students’ consumption or waste, but rather the research base in this area is very limited for making clear recommendations and evidence-based decisions.

If there’s a take-home lesson in any of this, it’s the danger of generalizations and assumptions about good nutrition. Salads can be junk food but they can also be a great source of nutrition and pleasurable eating.

The devil is in the details.

Click here to read more in the Washington Post and here to read the commentary by Anderson et al.

Salad, photograph © Zoi Koraki / flickr

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August 27, 2015