Supercharge Your Salad: Ditch the Lettuce

sprout salad

Story at-a-glance -

  • Lettuce is mostly water, doesn’t really add much nutrition to your diet, and is resource intensive to produce
  • Lettuce is a major source of food waste and foodborne illness
  • Swap lettuce in your salad for homegrown sprouts for superior nutrition; it’s better for the environment and safer too

By Dr. Mercola

Plant-based diets are widely considered to be better for the environment than diets that include animal foods.

While it's true that animal foods from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are among the worst polluters on the planet, industrially grown plant foods, at least some of them, may not be much better (and in some cases may be worse).

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a meta-analysis to quantify the water and energy use, along with emissions, for more than 100 foods. The largest water and energy footprint per calorie came from fruits.1

Vegetables, dairy, and fish/seafood were also found to have relatively high resource use and emissions per calorie. Study author Paul Fischbeck, professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy, told Scientific American:2

"You cannot just jump and assume that any vegetarian diet is going to have a low impact on the environment … You can't treat all fruits and veggies as good for the environment."

Lettuce Is a Top Source of Food Waste – and Foodborne Illness

In determining the energy footprint per calorie of the various foods, the researchers also accounted for food waste. The average calories per day consumed were calculated at 2,390, with an additional 1,230 for food waste.

Part of what makes leafy greens like lettuce so environmentally burdensome is because they're a top source of food waste. More than 1 billion pounds of salad go uneaten every year (let the enormity of that number sink in for a minute).3 This means all the water and energy put into its production is wasted too.

Leafy greens (which includes lettuce, spinach, cabbage, etc.) also account for a surprisingly high share of foodborne illnesses each year (22 percent from 1998 to 2008!).4

There are a few reasons for this, including contaminated water used to irrigate fields and manure that may be used for fertilizer or which contaminates the field from nearby farms. Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, told Modern Farmer:5

"We've already had outbreaks with cut lettuce and cut spinach and E. Coli 01:57, and there's also salmonella, and listeria. These organisms typically come from animals; they carry them in their intestinal tracts.

When the manure gets into the environment, then the bacteria is there, in the soil or the water. Often, when manure dries out, the wind blows it. Salmonella, we know, is quite tolerant to drying."

Another issue has to do with a milky "latex" that forms when the plant is cut, essentially trapping in bacteria that's virtually impossible to wash off. Compounding the matter is that leafy greens like lettuce and spinach are often eaten raw. Doyle continued:

"When the latex forms, if there is harmful bacteria there, the bacteria is within the plant tissue.

The treatments that are typically used in the processing plant for cleaning is basically chlorine, and they're just washing the outside of it, so the bacteria is not going to be washed away. Once they get in, the bacteria grows and the plant has nutrients to help them grow."

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Lettuce Isn't That Nutritious Compared to Some Other Vegetables

Just about every vegetable is mostly water, but lettuce is virtually all water (96 percent for iceberg lettuce, for instance). This isn't a bad thing, per se. Eating lettuce can fill you up and keep you from eating other less healthy foods, and it provides fiber, which many are lacking.

However, the lettuce in your salad really isn't providing you with that much nutrition, especially if it's iceberg. And if you're on a budget, you want to make the vegetables you do buy count, nutritionally speaking.

There are many other vegetables that are nutritionally superior, less expensive, and better for the environment. For instance, onions, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts all had a relatively small environmental footprint according to the featured study. As reported by The Washington Post:6

"The corollary to the nutrition problem is the expense problem. The makings of a green salad — say, a head of lettuce, a cucumber, and a bunch of radishes — cost about $3 at my supermarket.

For that, I could buy more than two pounds of broccoli, sweet potatoes, or just about any frozen vegetable going, any of which would make for a much more nutritious side dish to my roast chicken. Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table.

When we switch to vegetables that are twice as nutritious — like those collards or tomatoes or green beans — not only do we free up half the acres now growing lettuce, we cut back on the fossil fuels and other resources needed for transport and storage.

Save the planet, skip the salad."

Say Goodbye to Lettuce, Hello to Sprouts

Salads have become a staple for many Americans, especially at lunchtime. A national survey by GrubHub Seamless analyzed what working Americans are eating for lunch during their workdays. The top three entrees ordered were salads, with Greek salad topping the list.7

You probably assume this is a healthy lunch, but in many cases it's not. As written in The Washington Post:8

"Lots of what passes for salad in restaurants is just the same as the rest of the calorie-dense diabolically palatable food that's making us fat, but with a few lettuce leaves tossed in.

Next time you order a salad, engage in a little thought experiment: Picture the salad without the lettuce, cucumber, and radish, which are nutritionally and calorically irrelevant. Is it a little pile of croutons and cheese, with a few carrot shavings and lots of ranch dressing?"

If you can't imagine your lunch without a salad, don't despair. There's a simple way to radically supercharge your salad; it involves making one key switch – trade your lettuce for sprouts.

Reap the Health Benefits of Eating Sprouts instead of Lettuce

Sprouts may offer some of the highest levels of nutrition available, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes that help protect against free radical damage. So while lettuce is good, sprouts are even better.

Fresh broccoli sprouts, for instance,are far more potent than whole broccoli, allowing you to eat far less in terms of quantity. Three-day old broccoli sprouts consistently contain anywhere from 10 to 100 times the amount of glucoraphanin — a chemoprotective compound — found in mature broccoli.9

The compound glucoraphanin also appears to have a protective effect against toxic pollutants by improving your body's ability to eliminate or excrete them. Glucoraphanin has also been shown to protect against cancer.

Many of the benefits of sprouts relate to the fact that, in their initial phase of growth, the plants contain more concentrated amounts of nutrients. As a result, you need to eat far less sprouts, in terms of amount, compared to a mature plant. For example, when sprouting seeds, nuts, beans, and grains you get:

  • Higher vitamin content. In some seeds, the vitamin content is increased by as much as 20 times during the sprouting process. Some go even higher.
  • The B1 in mung beans, for example, increases by 285 percent when sprouted; B2 go up by 515 percent; and B3 (niacin) by 256 percent.10

  • Higher enzyme content. Sprouts contain an estimated 100 times more enzymes than fresh fruits and vegetables. These enzymes allow your body to extract higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from other foods you eat in conjunction with the sprouts as well.
  • Increased essential fatty acid and fiber content. The essential fatty acid and fiber content also increases dramatically during the sprouting process. Most people do not get enough fiber or healthy fats in their diet for optimal health, and sprouts can be a great source of both.
  • Increased bioavailability of minerals and protein. When the seed starts to sprout, minerals such as calcium and magnesium bind to proteins in the seed, which makes both the minerals and the protein more readily available and usable in your body.

In addition, the proteins are altered in beneficial ways during the process of sprouting, so you get more, and higher quality, protein from sprouts compared to eating the unsprouted seed.

Growing Your Own Sprouts: Good for the Environment, Lower Risk of Contamination

Commercially grown sprouts are one of the most commonly contaminated foods. They're so risky, Food Safety Director Doyle won't even eat them. He told Modern Farmer:11

"We've had so many outbreaks. There is no critical control point in the sprout business. You can't wash the bacteria away. If it grows during the sprouting process, it grows into the sprout itself. You'd have to cook it or something else to kill it."

The simple solution is to grow your own. When grown in soil, you can harvest your sprouts in about a week, and a pound of seeds will probably produce over 10 pounds of sprouts. Sunflower sprouts will give you the most volume for your effort and, in my opinion, have the best taste.

In one 10x10 tray, you can harvest between one and two pounds of sunflower sprouts. You can store them in the fridge for about a week, but it's even better to use them fresh, just after cutting.

Start the New Year Off Right – Grow Sprouts at Home

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If you start your sprouts now, you'll have fresh, healthy sprouts ready to enjoy to start off the New Year right. This is the true basis for a real salad. Once you've chosen your seeds, the next step is healthy soil to plant them in.

First, be sure the soil and/or compost you purchase does not contain biosolids. Sewage sludge, or "biosolids" – as they're referred to with a PR spin – are a type of fertilizer that began being "recycled" into food crops when, ironically, it was realized that dumping them into rivers, lakes, and bays was an environmental disaster. This sludge is what's leftover after sewage is treated and processed.

The problem is the sludge approved for use in fertilizer also contains industrial waste, which is loaded with toxins and heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals that may be harmful to human health and the environment. When you buy compost or potting soil, chances are it will have biosolids with these concentrated toxins in it. And yes, this includes organic fertilizer and organic mulch.

Never mind the fact that you're paying a premium for it thinking this is the way to avoid these toxins! These composted products can have the USDA organic label on them, and still be loaded with toxic biosolids. Most will not reveal the presence of biosolids, although some companies will include "miloganite" on the label, which is a term denoting biosolids from the City of Milwaukee — a national distributor.

For more information, see my interview above with David Lewis, a microbiologist with a Ph.D. in microbial ecology who spent three decades working as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist. If the bag of compost you're looking at happens to include "milorganite" on the label, avoid it like the plague. Aside from that, there's no way to tell whether the compost has toxic sludge in it or not.

Your best alternative is to contact your local nursery and ask them if they use biosolids in their compost. I happen to live close to a nursery that creates their own compost. I asked them about the presence of biosolids, and they said, "No, we do not use biosolids. We compost our own soil." They were very well informed about the toxic dangers inherent with the use of biosolids.

So, it's vital that you discuss what is added to the compost with the person that is actually responsible for producing it. Another alternative is to make your own, using a composting bin or wood chips for example.

My Sprouts' Growth Exploded When I Added Biochar

Dr. Mercola's Sprouts

Sunflower seeds and pea sprouts – 3 days until ready for harvest

Dr. Mercola's Sprouts

Sunflower seed sprouts and wheat grass - ready to harvest

When growing sprouts at home, I first started out using a commercial compost, and my sprouts struggled to grow. I added biochar to the soil, and their growth took off. It was a shocking difference. Biochar is created by slowly burning biomass like wood chips, corn stalks, coconut shells, or any similar organic material, in a low-oxygen environment, such as a kiln.

When burned this way, the carbon in the organic material is not released into the atmosphere as CO2; rather it traps the carbon and forms a type of charcoal that has a reef-like structure, which serves as a magnificent microbial home.

Besides providing excellent living quarters for soil microorganisms, Biochar also has a number of other benefits, including:

  1. Returning much of the depleted carbon to the soil (carbon sequestration), where it can remain for hundreds or even thousands of years
  2. Improving overall soil quality and fertility
  3. Raising the soil's water retention ability
  4. Potentially helping to "filter" toxic chemicals in the soil, much like carbon-based water filtration systems can filter toxins out of your water

The introduction of Biochar into soil is not like applying fertilizer; rather it's the beginning of a process — most of the benefit is achieved through the activity of the microbes and fungi that take up residence in the treated soil. They colonize its massive surface area and integrate into the char and the surrounding soil, dramatically increasing the soil's ability to nurture plant growth.

If you want to try this at home, you can use my Sprout Doctor Starter Kit, which includes everything you need to get started – seeds (broccoli, pea, and sunflower), a sprouting tray and Sprout Doctor Soil Enhancement, with biochar.

Once your sprouts are ready, harvest some to make a delicious non-lettuce salad. For inspiration, check out my favorite lunch recipe. It's a "salad" unlike any you've probably ever seen – packed with nutritionally rich sprouts, healthy fats and much more.