Bag Salad is Evil. Learn Why, and You’ll Never Buy It Again.

Bag Salad is Evil. Learn Why, and You’ll Never Buy It Again.

T

hin, healthy people seem to eat a lot of salad. I want to be thinner and healthier, so I need to eat more salad. On my next trip to the grocery store I swing through the produce section, feeling superior to those assholes in the Oreo aisle. And that’s where I see it…

Why not grab a few bags of prepared salad at the store, and keep them in the fridge? It’ll be so easy to be thin and healthy now! Just pop one open, throw it in a bowl, and splash on some dressing. Oh, and now they have bags that come WITH the dressing, in a little bag inside the bag. Some come with croutons, in another little bag, inside the bag, next to the dressing bag. And raisins! Cheese! Sunflower seeds! It’s healthier than pizza, and cheaper than Door Dash. And so easy! WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT KEEPING A FEW BAGS OF SALAD IN THE FRIDGE?

That’s the argument, anyway, and it’s working. Refrigerated bag salad is white hot right now. According to Nielsen Perishables Group, packaged salad sales have been growing about 6.5% every year since 2011, and according to IRI, household penetration is approaching 90%.

But bag salad is evil, my friends. Here’s why.

It’s expensive.
At the place I shop, a 10 oz. bag of pre-cut, “triple-washed” romaine lettuce is $2.99/lb. A fresh romaine head — about 14 oz. — is $1.69. Even if you end up tossing 15% of the fresh head during prep, that means the pre-packaged stuff is MORE THAN DOUBLE the price of the fresh.

DOUBLE. That’s the difference between a loaded Ford Explorer and a base Range Rover.

Range Rovers are awfully nice, though, some say… much better than Ford Explorers. Are bag salads better, too?

It’s not as good for you, or the planet.
No, in fact. They’re worse.

First off, they’re worse for you. Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, told NPR:

“Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old. They’re not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them… If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it — and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it — you’re going to increase the antioxidant activity … fourfold.”

Bag salads are washed in chlorinated water, the stuff that burned your eyes in your old above-ground pool. Then they’re packaged with a mix of gasses called “modified atmosphere” in the ingredient list, to keep them looking fresh and extend their shelf lives up to a week. While that mystery gas keeps the leaves looking good, it doesn’t protect the nutrients… which is why an open bag of salad goes bad in the fridge so much faster than fresh greens do.

They’re also worse for the planet. It takes A LOT of water to make “triple washed” bag salad, which is the single most important environmental consideration for the Central Valley of California or Arizona, where 90 percent of U.S. lettuce is produced. And it’s the same for energy… bag salads require much more mechanical prep work, processing, and packaging than a simple head of lettuce.

We’re paying for convenience, though… not quality. Which brings us to the third and most important reason bag salad is evil.

It’s the symptom of a larger problem.
The reason we’re fat is not that we don’t eat enough salad. We’re fat because we’ve lost our connection to food. We’ve forgotten what it means to eat healthy.

Since the 1950’s, industrial food producers have been telling us a story about how hard it is to buy real food and put it on the table, casting themselves in the role of liberator from the oppressive burden of fresh food preparation. They’ve lobbied for federal policies and food subsidies that slashed the cost of a single crop — corn — and turned the middle aisle of every supermarket into a mono-culture of salt-packed, fat-laden, artificially-flavored and over-sweetened corn calories. The good news is it’s cut the share of household income we spend on food at home from around 18% to 6%. The bad news? Unhealthy eating is a major driver in spiraling healthcare costs, which over the same period went from 6% to 18%.

In other words we traded our broccoli for bypass surgery. It was a bad trade, from the start, and it’s killing us.

In the 1950’s as few as 10% of Americans were obese (we don’t know exactly because it wasn’t a big enough problem to count.) By 2030 — 70 years after the start of pitching convenience-without-compromise to consumers —more than half of Americans will be obese, with disadvantaged communities disproportionately represented in the obesity stats, and in the mortality rates they predict.

Bag salads may not be killing people directly, but the relationship with food they encourage is. A fresh salad used to be seen as something healthy you could chop up and throw together if you weren’t in the mood to cook. When even that is too much effort — when it’s cast as a problem to be mitigated by Big Food in the form of a prepared, processed, shelf-stabilized solution — something is very definitely wrong.

“Complicated.”
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If I had one word to describe my relationship with food, that would be it.

I’m Italian. I live for fresh, local food, expertly chosen and simply prepared.

I’m also Italian-American. I confuse love with the infinite combinations of carbs and inflammatory nightshades prepared for me from my earliest memories, and it’s a problem I’ve struggled my whole life to get past.

Food writer Mark Bittman is constantly asked whether something is healthy, and he’s taken to responding to that question with another: “Relative to what?” Is wheat toast healthy? If you’re having it instead of sugary cereal, then probably yes. If you’re having it instead of a hard-boiled egg, then probably not.

Maybe that’s the right lens to take to the question of bag salads as well. Relative to what? If you’re buying them to replace frozen pizza, or some other equally abominable processed food in your household diet, then proceed with caution in your complicity with The Food Industrial Complex.

But if you care about serving fresh food… if you care about health and the environment and can just find the time for an extra stop to get fresh produce grown near the place you live… make the trip once a week to keep the real thing in your fridge. It’s no burden. It’s a chance to embrace the simple pleasure of washing, cutting, and serving something good. Do it to save some money, to protect the environment, or as something nice for yourself. And if none of that works, then do it for the people you love.