Iceberg lettuce gets some nutritious bulking upYou’d never know it by taking a head count at the supermarket, but iceberg lettuce is losing favor with consumers looking for more flavor and nutrition from their salad greens. Iceberg has been contemptuously called the “polyester of all the lettuce types,” and critics claim it has about as much dietary value as sticking a blade of grass between your teeth.
By: By Dean Fosdick, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
NEW MARKET, Va. — You’d never know it by taking a head count at the supermarket, but iceberg lettuce is losing favor with consumers looking for more flavor and nutrition from their salad greens.
Iceberg has been contemptuously called the “polyester of all the lettuce types,” and critics claim it has about as much dietary value as sticking a blade of grass between your teeth.
“Iceberg is 95 to 96 percent water, although it brings a little fiber and folic acid to the table,” said David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. “Compared to others, though, its nutrient content is unbelievably low — about one-twentieth the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens.”
For the past half-dozen years, Still has been trying to develop an iceberg variety that is easier to grow, has a longer shelf life after harvest and packs more nutritional value.
So far he has managed to cross iceberg lettuce with some butter lettuces, boosting its levels of antioxidants and vitamins A, C, E and K.
“We don’t think it (hy-bridization) will change the iceberg’s taste that much but it is one of the things we’re watching,” Still said.
There was a time when iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, said George Ball, chairman and chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
“The whole thing about iceberg is the crunch,” Ball said. “Americans love that crunch in a sandwich. But in the ’60s and ’70s, the trend started moving toward leaf lettuces. Romaine in Caesar salads, for instance. It was getting harder to find an iceberg being served in restaurants.”
The fragility of leaf lettuces — that they don’t take well to freezing, drying or canning, and wilt quickly after being cut from the garden — made them something of a localized market item before the iceberg came along, Ball said. The convergence of iceberg lettuce and boxcar icing meant salads could be served fresh anywhere at any time of year.
Then came the fall.
In 2006, the nation’s growers harvested 175,600 acres of iceberg lettuce, mostly in California and Texas. That was down from 198,500 acres in 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
The romaine lettuce crop during that same period grew from 36,450 acres to some 61,000 acres. Leaf lettuces rose from 46,220 acres to 71,100 acres.
Yet Americans continue eating more iceberg lettuce than any other variety. Ro-maine ran a distant second.
So until the healthier varieties come along, here are some simple ways to give iceberg lettuce a nutritious lift:
— Mix it with greener greens that contain heavier concentrations of calcium, vitamins and proteins.
— Wrap the outer leaves around slices of meat and cheese, making a carbohydrate-neutral substitute for sliced breads.