Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
Healthy Salad Greens
Summer is a wonderful time of year for salad lovers. In summer, the widest variety of salad greens is available. Fresh greens from gardens or markets are tasty and very nutritious. Three interesting and tasty plants that can be found in non-traditional markets and sometimes in traditional ones as well are purslane, mizuna, and tatsoi. In North America, purslane can also be found growing in the wild. In some areas, mizuna and tatsoi are available all year long in prepared salad mixes.
When you’re buying salad greens, don't restrict yourself to iceberg lettuce, which is sometimes nutritionally poor compared to darker greens. In addition to visiting your local supermarket or corner store to buy vegetables, try to find farmers markets, organic food stores, and Asian markets. These are all good places to discover new types of plants to add to salads. Growing the greens yourself would be beneficial if you have the space and a suitable environment.
Nutrients in Salad Greens
The darker-colored salad greens are rich in beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A. They are great sources of folate as well. Folate is one of the B vitamins. Greens also contain other B vitamins as well as vitamin C. Some leafy greens are good sources of Vitamins E and K. In addition, salad greens contain important minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, manganese, and zinc.
Green vegetables contain beneficial molecules known as phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Unlike vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals are not essential for our survival but are believed to reduce the risk of some diseases.
It’s important to eat a small amount of a healthy oil with salad greens, since nutrients such as beta-carotene and vitamins E and K are fat soluble. They need the presence of fat in order to be absorbed through the lining of our small intestine. Healthy fats and oils have health benefits of their own.
Purslane is a popular food in the Mediterranean region. It grows wild in the United States and Canada and in many other parts of the world, where it's often regarded as a weed. It's a small plant with thick and succulent stems and leaves. It produces yellow flowers and reproduces from stem pieces as well as seeds.
Purslane has a great ability to survive drought. Its seeds can survive in the soil for many years. It can be a hard plant to eradicate. Some people who know about the plant's nutritional benefits don't want to eradicate it. If you plan to gather wild purslane for food, remember to be absolutely certain of the plant's identification before you harvest it. In addition, don't eat plants from an area that has been sprayed with pesticides or is close to vehicle traffic or another form of potential pollution.
Cultivated varieties of purslane can be bought from garden stores. Some people think that cultivated purslane tastes better than the wild kind, while other people have the opposite opinion. Both the stems and the leaves of purslane can be eaten. They have a crunchy texture when raw and have a sour, tangy, and slightly peppery taste.
Nutrients in Purslane
Purslane is a good source of antioxidants, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Antioxidants help to prevent cell damage caused by the free radicals produced during oxidation. Purslane also supplies us with calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It contains a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a type of omega-3 fatty acid.
ALA is an essential fatty acid—one that our bodies cannot make. It's believed to play an important role in preventing heart disease and in maintaining healthy blood vessels and a healthy blood pressure. Inside the body, ALA molecules are converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found most abundantly in oily fish. Like ALA, EPA and DHA are thought to have important health benefits.
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Researchers say that the body's conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA isn't very efficient. In addition, since purslane plants are small, a large number of them would have to be eaten to supply the body's daily ALA requirement. Nevertheless, the plants can make a valuable contribution to our daily omega-3 intake.
Mizuna has saw-toothed leaves and a mild, peppery taste. It’s sometimes known as Japanese mustard. It's believed to be native to China but is especially popular in Japan. Like other salad greens with medium or dark green leaves, mizuna is nutritious. It provides us with beta-carotene, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.
Mizuna is eaten raw and is also steamed and boiled. In some parts of the world, it's a popular ingredients in soups, hot pot dishes, and stir-fries. It's also enjoyed as a pickled vegetable in some cultures.
Boiling salad greens—or any green vegetable—is not the best way to cook them. The water-soluble nutrients leach out of the leaves and enter the boiling water, which is generally discarded. Vitamin C and the B complex vitamins are water-soluble.
Facts About Tatsoi
Tatsoi is another popular Asian salad green. It grows as a low rosette of leaves, which are dark green, spoon-shaped, and often glossy. Tatsoi has a mild flavor that resembles the taste of mustard. Its leaf shape and taste give it the alternate name of spoon mustard.
I've never grown tatsoi, but it's said to grow rapidly and to be an easy plant to cultivate. Like mizuna, it's a cut-and-come-again plant and is sometimes found in salad green mixes.
The leaves and stems of tatsoi are usually eaten raw. The plant is also steamed, boiled, and used in stir-fries. The leaves are added to soups. This is generally done at the end of the cooking period so that the hot water softens the leaves without overcooking them. The leaves are also sautéed. Tatsoi contains a high level of beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, and potassium, as well as some iron.
Maximizing Nutrition in Green Salads
Nutritionists say that many of us don’t eat enough vegetables. Salads are an excellent way to increase our vegetable and nutrient intake, especially if we eat a wide variety of salad greens. Different greens contain a different combination of nutrients, so eating many kinds will help ensure that we get a wide range of nutritional benefits.
I nearly always eat my salad greens raw and very rarely cook them. My favorite salad oils to enhance nutrient absorption and add an interesting taste are extra virgin olive oil and unrefined sesame oil. Many other healthy oils are available in stores. I often add kelp or dulse flakes or granules to my salads as well as oil. Kelp and dulse are good sources of iodine and have a much lower sodium content than table salt.
Possible Additions to Salads
The addition of dried or fresh fruit to salads provides extra nutrients. The sweet taste of fruit combines nicely with the sharper taste of the salad greens. Good dried fruits to add include raisins, currants, pieces of dates, figs, dried apricots, and dried plums. Good fresh fruits to mix with salad greens include sliced apples, pears, oranges, bananas, peaches, pineapple, and cantaloupe. Grapes, sweet cherries, and berries such as blueberries and strawberries are also nice additions.
A salad can be turned into a complete meal by adding a protein such as beans. Hard-boiled eggs and cheese can also provide protein for someone who is a vegetarian rather than a vegan. The salad can be made more filling by adding other vegetables in addition to salad greens, such as tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, sliced beets, peppers, radishes, celery, and sprouts. Nuts and seeds are great additions, too.
Convenience of Packaged Salad Greens
Bags or plastic containers of pre-washed salad greens are available in many stores throughout the year. Spinach, romaine lettuce, arugula (also called rocket), endive, chard, mizuna, and sometimes tatsoi can be found in packages of salad greens. Although prepared greens are more expensive than fresh ones, they are a good way to increase nutrition. It’s very easy to open the refrigerator, grab a handful of greens, and add them to a sandwich or a meal.
One serious disadvantage of packaged salad greens, besides the cost and the use of plastic in the packaging, is the risk of Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria poisoning. In North America, there have been several outbreaks of foodborne illness in recent years, which have been traced to bacteria growing on packaged salad greens. It's very important that prepared salads are produced safely, kept refrigerated from the time when they are packaged to the time when they are eaten, and used well before their expiry date.
Salads: Versatile, Nutritious, and Delicious
Eating salads is a great way to boost vegetable intake. A salad is quick and easy to make. All that has to be done is to wash the greens, remove any excess water, and then add a healthy oil. Packaged greens make the process even easier. Additional ingredients can be added to change the salad from a snack or one course of a meal into a complete meal. Making a salad gives someone a chance to be creative and to discover new and delicious flavor combinations.
Although salads can be made all year, summer is the best time for someone to discover new greens that they've never eaten before or that they've never eaten in their fresh form. A visit to a local farmers markets can be a productive trip at this time of year. Interesting greens such as purslane, mizuna, and tatsoi may be found at the market. They can be great additions to the diet.
- Health benefits and safe handling of salad greens from Colorado State University Extension
- Nutrients in purslane from the USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture
- Mizuna facts from the Royal Horticultural Society
- Information about Asian greens (including tatsoi) from Food Smart Colorado, University of Colorado Extension
© 2011 Linda Crampton