Prepackaged salad mixes are the ultimate in mealtime convenience. The greens are already washed, chopped, and sometimes even packaged with salad dressing and a crunchy topping. But are these products actually healthy?
Produce is one of the biggest means by which people contract food-borne illnesses like E. coli and salmonella. However, this category includes some of the healthiest foods we can eat. In order to make the safest and smartest choice when it comes to salads, stay right here to learn how the bagged version compares to those made fresh from whole produce at home.
The question of nutrition
We all know from middle school science class that food is best when served at the “peak of freshness” shortly after it is harvested. As soon as it is picked (or butchered), all food begins to slowly lose nutrients. So it’s easy to assume that perhaps bagged salads, which are processed heavily before they hit shelves, lose more nutrients than food left whole.
However, manufacturers of these products typically strive for a fast turnaround from field to store, even within 24 hours. And, the very packaging may also help prevent excess nutrient loss. Most manufacturers use a process called modified atmosphere packaging, which reduces oxygen exposure to the food. This can slow the rate at which critical nutrients are lost, especially vitamin C and folate.
An additional bonus of this type of packaging is that the color and crisp texture of the food lasts longer, giving you a bit more time to enjoy that salad. Ultimately, nutrient loss in a bagged salad as compared to a whole head of lettuce is pretty similar.
Contamination risk of bagged salads
It’s true that the risk of contamination for any given food goes up the more it is handled prior to packaging. Obviously, bagged salads are handled a lot more that whole heads of lettuce, and recent recalls on romaine have made consumers understandably wary of bagged salads.
But in reality, the risk of being sickened by bacteria on produce is still relatively low. If E. coli is present in a bagged salad, it was most likely also present on the whole head of lettuce used to make the salad. Bagged salads, however, have been washed up to three times prior to packaging, and one of those washes includes a chlorine solution to kill bacteria.
Why a triple wash? The reason is that salad greens are not flat and smooth but include grooves into which dirt and germs can fall. Typically greens are washed right after harvesting at the farm, and then are cleansed twice more during processing.
One area where bagged salads may fall short is in the packaging. Though the airtight nature of plastic bags can slow the process of food spoilage, it also allows the produce to be crushed during transport and storage. Some studies indicate that the liquid that seeps from crushed leaves is more likely to support the growth of salmonella.
Still, let your eyes be your guide in your purchasing decisions. You can tell by looking if the leaves inside the bag are fresh and crisp or if they have become wilted and bruised.
Another option in packaged greens is clamshell packaging, or plastic boxes, rather than bags. This provides a bit more protection for the produce during shipping and storage.
Eating salad is an excellent way to get your vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Salads are infinitely customizable, so it’s hard to get bored. And because they are great topped with meat, nuts, or cheese, you can enjoy a balanced meal in one dish.
Remembering that no food is completely free of contamination risk, don’t hesitate to buy prepackaged salad mixes if that’s your preference. It’s way better than eating no salad at all.