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Is lettuce nutritious or a waste of culinary real estate?

Photo by Duane Prokop

Whether as an appetizer, entree or side dish, salads are a popular component of various global cuisine. But, does the primary base of the salad, the lettuce, have any nutritional content? From the classic Iceberg wedge to the soft petals of Butterhead, what nutritional value does lettuce give to a meal? Well, the answer lies in the type of lettuce gracing the dish.

1. Iceberg -Popular since the 1950's is the classic iceberg salad. Often served as a flavorless giant wedge with blue cheese or on the side, along with shredded carrots, onion slices and an obligatory, strategically placed tomato, this salad has very little to no nutritional value. One cup of iceberg lettuce yields a low 1g protein and 1g fiber and mere 7% Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin A. Perhaps its only saving grace is the 22% DV of Vitamin K it offers. Overall, its green filler for a meal.

2. Romaine -Along with the introduction of the Caesar salad, Romaine lettuce took the lead, complemented by creamy anchovy, black pepper dressing. Despite edging ahead of iceberg lettuce in flavor, romaine is equal to it in fiber and protein. Perhaps Romaine's redeeming quality is that is offers several trace minerals and elements. One cup has a whopping 82% DV of Vitamin A, 60% DV Vitamin K, 19% DV Vitamin C and 16% Folate.

3. Butterhead - Butterhead lettuce, otherwise known as Boston or Bibb lettuce, has a soft, mild appeal to the palate. It ranks close to Romaine, however, in nutritional content with one cup providing 70% DV Vitamin K, 36% DV Vitamin A, 10% DV Folate. Although it has a similar 1g of protein and fiber each, Butterhead lettuce is rich in trace elements like Potassium (4%DV), Calcium (2%DV) and Manganese (5% DV).

Salads have come a long way from the traditional crisp, crunchy iceberg head. Soft, earthy, mixed greens and microgreens have stormed the posh restaurants and gourmet grocers in a Mesclun mix combining frisee endive, baby beet greens, red and green oak leaf, watercress, tatsoi and mache.

Each green has its own redeeming nutritional qualities, but most are high in Vitamins A, C and K with up to 2g of fiber and/or protein, but some have outstanding levels of trace minerals.

4. Mixed Greens - Frisee, also known as curly endive, boasts 142% DV Vitamin K while baby beet greens (Vit K190% DV, Vit A 48%DV, Vit C 19%DV), red oak (Vit A 42% DV, Vit K 49% DV, Iron 2%, DV)and green oak leaf (Vit A 53% DV, Vit K 78% DV, Vit C 11% DV, Iron 2% DV) have higher levels of Vitamin K and Iron. Their red leaf cousin raddichio, however has only Vitamin K at 128% DV to offer.

5. Exotic Greens - Perhaps the lesser known and exotic green in today's salads offer the most nutrition. Watercress has the classic Vit A (22% DV) and Vit K (106% DV), but adds in 4% DV of Calcium and 3% DV of Potassium. The Japenese green Tatsoi has a whopping 31% DV of Calcium, 674mg Potassium, 324 %DV Vit C, 12% DV Iron and 4g of fiber in 1 cup. Lastly, a 4oz serving of Mache, also known as Lambs lettuce, has 2g fiber 2g protein 160mg Vit B9 (Folate), 2.2 mg Iron 459mg Potassium). Once thought of as exotic, these greens now grace supermarket shelves in pre-washed packages as well as on the plates of fancy food establishments.

6. Spinach & Kale - Although not technically a lettuce, perhaps the most nutritious salads will include either kale or spinach amidst their greens. Packed with outstanding values of trace minerals, vitamins and protein, both are an excellent addition to round out any salad for nutrition.

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