Healthiest Salad Greens: The Ultimate Guide
In restaurants and grocery stores, we often see terms like “mesclun greens” or “spring mix.” But what do these terms mean exactly? And how do the combinations affect the taste and nutritional profile of the greens? Here is everything you need to know about the healthiest salad greens.
What Are the Healthiest Salad Greens?
While terms like “mesclun greens” or “spring mix” are generic and have no real definition, chefs and manufacturers are quite calculating in creating these mixed greens combinations. And many of them can easily be made at home using organic greens that are much fresher. The trick is simply knowing a little more about the textures and flavor profiles of each leafy green. StartCooking.com summed up a great rule of thumb for mixing your own healthiest salad greens:
When it comes to making a salad, try creating your own mix. Toss together at least three varieties. Here’s a basic formula for the healthiest salad greens:
- Use a mild lettuce or green, like Boston, bibb or endive
- Another should be a crisp lettuce or green, like romaine or cabbage
- The third kind should be tart, peppery, or bitter greens, like arugula or radicchio
Armed with this great tip, it’s suddenly easier to create your own delicious mix of the healthiest salad greens that are organic and fresher than prepackaged greens. Here’s a little information plus some fun facts about 10 of the most common salad greens.
(Note: we are only covering green leaves but there are other leafy ingredients that are common salad staples such as radicchio and red cabbage. If you’re interested, we can always follow up with a post that distinguishes red leafy vegetables as well. Just let us know in the comments section.)
Look: Spinach leaves tend to be narrow to round leaves with no protrusions. They are dark, tender and soft to the touch.
Taste: Often the exclusive foundation of a salad, spinach is hearty with a bitter finish.
Nurition Factor: Spinach is a great source of the eye supporting antioxidant, lutein. It is one of the healthiest salad greens. Its also high in iron, calcium, vitamin K, vitamin A, Vitamin C and B vitamins. Although spinach packs more iron per gram than beef, it also contains oxalates. Oxalates can bind to both calcium and iron, compromising absorption. To maximize absorption of these minerals, try a citrus-based dressing. Vitamin C can boost iron absorption.
Fun Fact: The Florence, Italy-born wife of King Henry II of France, Queen Catherine de’ Medici, loved spinach so much that she insisted it be served at every meal. To this day, her love of spinach is the reason we call recipes that are dressed with spinach “Florentine.”
Look: Romaine heads are tall with long leaves. They have a firm rib in the center. They tend to be lighter and more firm at the base and darker more loosely packed toward the tip. Romaine comes in both green and red varieties. It is one of the only common salad greens that can accurately be called “lettuce.”
Taste: Romaine leaves are very mild. They have an increasingly bitter taste closer to the rib.
Nurition Factor: This crunchy green a very hydrating leaf. It is a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C and folate.
Fun Fact: As you probably know, the romaine leaf is the only green used in Caesar salads. But what you might not know is that the Caesar salad was invented in the U.S. by restaurant owner Caesar Cardini. In 1924, a Fourth of July rush depleted his kitchen of most ingredients. In a moment of desperation, Caesar sprung into action creating a salad with the ingredients he had left: Romaine, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, egg, Parmesan and croutons.
Look: Fast becoming a salad staple, the arugula leaves are long and skinny. They are darker in color and have 2-3 side projections.
Taste: Arugula is known for being a very rich green with peppery notes.
Nurition Factor: Arugula is one of the healthiest salad greens. It is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, and di-indolyl-methane (DIM), a plant compound thought to promote healthy hormone balance.
Fun Fact: Arugula also grows tiny flowers which are often used as edible garnishes on salads.
Look: Also known as “curly endive,” Frisée’s leaves are skinny and curly with colors that range from light yellow to yellow green. (I always remembered the name of this leaf by recalling that they look frazzled– “frazzeled frisée”).
Taste: This green is mildly bitter and nutty with notes of pepper.
Nutrition Factor: These leaves are a great source of vitamin C and fiber.
Fun Fact: Did your salad seem huge but you’re still hungry? Frisée is often used by restaurants to add volume and dimension to salads. It makes salads look bigger than they really are.
5. Belgium Endive
Look: Belgium endive is a member of the chicory family. It is tall, firm and crispy with satiny leaves that are often white to pale yellow in color.
Taste: Belgium endive is mildly bitter with the more mild tastes coming from the lighter end of the leaf.
Nutrition Factor: Endive is an excellent source of beta carotene, B vitamins and fiber.
Fun Fact: Because the leaf of the Belgium endive is so strong and has a “scoop” shape, it is often used as a serving spoon for many appetizers.
Look: Watercress is characterized by its long, hollow stem and small round green leaves.
Taste: This green is peppery with a tangy flavor.
Nutrition Factor: Watercress is known to have many health benefits. It is an excellent source of iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and folic acid. Additionally, it is thought that watercress may act as a diuretic, an expectorant and a digestive aid.
Fun Fact: In his 1617 publication of The Surgeon’s Mate, John Woodall recommended watercress as a potential remedy for scurvy.
7. Butterhead Lettuce
Look: Another of the true “luttuces,” butterhead lettuce is actually an umbrella term used to describe Boston, Bibb, Buttercrunch and Tom Thumb. Due to their delicacy, you’ll typically find these leaves packed in plastic containers. Butterhead lettuce heads are loosely packed with small, round and soft leaves. They range from pale green to dark green in color.
Taste: These leaves are very mild and smooth (like butter). Sometimes, they are even a little on the sweeter side.
Nutrition Factor: All varieties of butterhead lettuce are high in vitamin K. They are also very hydrating. They usually average about 96% water (how cleansing!).
Fun Fact: Lettuce was actually named for its milk. The latin name, Lactuca sativa, was derived from the Latin word for milk, “lac” which referred to the plant’s milky juice.
8. Crisphead Lettuce
Look: The final “lettuce” on this list is crisphead lettuce, also known as iceberg. It is larger in size with tightly packed leaves that are light pale green in color.
Taste: The most neutral of salad greens, crisphead lettuce is crisp and very mild.
Nutrition Factor: Similar to butterhead lettuce, crisphead lettuce is a good source of vitamin K, water and fiber.
Fun Fact: It is thought that ancient Romans and ancient Egyptians consumed both crisphead lettuce and butterhead lettuce at the end of evening meals because they contain Lactucarium, an opiate-like substance thought to induce sleep.
Look: Mâche is often sold still planted in a pot of soil. It has a long, white stem and small oval-shaped leaves.
Taste: This less common but delicious green is very mild and slightly sweet.
Nutrition Factor: Mâche is thought to be very high in vitamin C as lettuce, beta-carotene and B vitamins. It is one of the healthiest salad greens.
Fun Fact: A more common name for Mâche is corn salad which refers to the fact that it often grew as a weed in wheat fields.
Look: Mizuna leaves are deep green in color with a light stalk. They are typically medium in size with jagged edges.
Taste: Mizuna is slightly peppery with a distinct mustard-like flavor.
Nutrition Factor: This leafy and one of the healthiest salad greens is high in carotenoids and is a great source of fiber.
Fun Fact: Indigenous to Japan, Mizuna is highly resistant to cold weather. It is grown during the cold winter months. (The Japanese also enjoy this pickled green.)