Health benefits and safe handling of salad greens


By Robin Young | PREVIEW Columnist

Lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens are an important part of a healthful diet because they can be year-round sources of vitamin A, vitamin C and other nutrients.

Red and dark green leafy vegetables are generally higher in antioxidants, Vitamin B6 and other nutrients than lighter-colored greens.

It is important to store leafy greens at refrigerator temperatures and rinse well under running water before using.

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, observe “Use by” dates printed on bagged leafy vegetables and salad mixes and use within two days after opening.

There are many flavorful and nutritious leafy greens available to consumers, especially if you choose to grow them from seed.

Benefits of leafy salad greens 

Leafy, green vegetables are nutrient-rich because leaves contain the light-catching, energy-converting machinery of plants. Salad greens contain vitamin A, vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, folate, fiber and phytonutrients. Leafy vegetables are a good choice for a healthful diet because they do not contain cholesterol and are naturally low in calories and sodium. 

Many of the health benefits that leafy greens provide come from phytonutrients, unique compounds that provide protection for plants. These compounds are becoming recognized as part of a nutritious diet that promotes long-term health. Phytonutrients can act as antioxidants, which help to prevent chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Did you know, that although kale is commonly eaten in salads and wraps like different lettuces, it is actually a cruciferous vegetable, such as broccoli and cauliflower?

Lettuce, the most commonly consumed leafy vegetable, provides about seven calories per one-cup serving. When it comes to satisfying your appetite, it helps to eat foods high in volume but low in calories like lettuce. Lettuce is not typically a standalone vegetable. It is usually served with an array of other vegetables and fruits in a salad, and lettuce is often used to add a crunch to sandwiches, hold a variety of fillings as a wrap, or provide color as a garnish.

Lettuce and other leafy greens are generally cool-season crops with short growing periods. This means gardeners can get several crops of salad greens in the time it takes other vegetables to reach final maturity. Because leafy greens can grow in a variety of locations, they are often available at local farmers markets. 

Home gardeners can enjoy lettuce and other types of leafy vegetables planted in traditional rows, containers or even as accents in flower gardens.

Types of lettuce 

Many types of lettuce are available in the grocery store and may be purchased by the head or as prepackaged salad greens. Different types have slightly different flavors. Some have a mild flavor and crisp texture; others have a slightly bitter or tangy flavor that adds a nice bite to mixed salads.

Salad greens are popular world-wide, so many of the different types have become known by a variety of names.

Tips for healthier salads 

For added color and variety, try a different type of salad green to mix with your usual choice. Baby greens (such as baby spinach) tend to be more tender, nutritious and milder in flavor than mature greens. Use less dressing to enjoy the flavor of the salad greens.

Tips for safe handling and storage of salad greens. 

When shopping, pack fresh salad greens in plastic bags so they are kept separate from other groceries, especially raw meats and poultry. 

Refrigerate salad greens at 35 to 40 degrees F within two hours of purchasing. Store in a plastic bag or lettuce keeper.

Always wash hands before preparing salads, and make sure you are working with a clean cutting board.

Wash lettuce just before using by running cold water over leaves. Leaves can be difficult to clean, so separating the leaves and immersing them in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes helps loosen sand and dirt. A bowl is a much better choice than a sink, which can harbor bacteria and be difficult to clean.

Presoaking lettuce for 5 minutes in dilute vinegar-water (1/2 cup distilled white vinegar per 2 cups water), followed by a clean water rinse, has been shown to reduce bacterial contamination but may affect texture and taste. A vinegar rinse will not eliminate all microorganisms, but may lower the level of possible contamination. After washing, blot dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to remove excess moisture.

Because lettuce and other salad greens are very perishable, they should be used within one week after purchase.

Bagged salads can be convenient, but added processing steps like cutting and mixing can increase the likelihood of contamination with microorganisms. To reduce the risk of foodborne illness with bagged salads, keep them refrigerated at 35 to 40 degrees F, observe “Use By” dates marked on the package and rinse well before eating, removing any damaged or spoiled leaves.

See the following Extension fact sheets for additional information on produce safety:

• 9.369, “Preventing E. coli From Garden to Plate.”

• 9.378, “Growing Container Salad Greens”

• 9.380, “Guide to Washing Fresh Produce.”

• 9.381, “Safe Food Facts for Community Gardens.”

Upcoming events

July 15: Viticulture workshop hosted at Fox Fire Farms. Please go to to register.

 Aug. 3-6: Archuleta County Fair. Go to for more information. Volunteers are wanted.

CPR and first aid classes

CPR and first aid certification classes are offered every other month by the CSU Extension office, generally on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m. The cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for CPR, first aid or recertification. Call the Extension office at (970) 264-5931 to register.