It's little more than "a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table."
Romaine lettuce is being pulled off the shelves across North America right now because of E.coli contamination. The Centers for Disease Control are advising Americans to not only throw it away but also to "wash and sanitize drawers or shelves in refrigerators where romaine was stored." They haven't figured out exactly where the contamination is happening yet, but most of the lettuce we are eating now is grown in California.
TreeHugger types on the east coast might think twice about drinking a plastic bottle full of California water, but in fact, if you eat lettuce, that is what you are doing. Tamar Haspel wrote a controversial article in the Washington Post where she noted that lettuce is 97 percent water:
A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious.
But shipping a bottle of Evian is easier. Katherine has described how, "By the 1950s, iceberg lettuce was the most commonly consumed lettuce in the U.S., with average per capita consumption around 20 pounds. Refrigeration technology developed to the point that iceberg lettuce was even shipped to American soldiers in Vietnam." Haspel writes:
"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."
When my wife Kelly Rossiter wrote about food for TreeHugger, we ate a 19th-century Ontario diet, both local and seasonal. Instead of salads, we ate root vegetables, stuff she had preserved, and kale, far too much kale. Potatoes were as good a vehicle for transporting garlic and fat from plate to mouth as any salad green was and probably healthier. Haspel writes:
"I won’t be the first to point out that items labeled “salad” at chain restaurants are often as bad, if not worse, than pasta or sandwiches or burgers when it comes to calories. Take Applebee’s, where the Oriental Chicken Salad clocks in at 1,400 calories, and the grilled version is only 110 calories lighter."
Haspel was interviewed on CBC's The Current about this article, and she is hilarious. But she also notes that one of the problems of lettuce is that it is served raw; cooking kills bacteria, which is one reason we do it. But if you cook a head of lettuce, you have pretty much nothing left.
Over at the Guardian, Emma Sturgess picks up the story from Haspel, titling her version Do you like salad? You're a fool. She points out how much is wasted:
"The major issues are water-hungry production, the means of preparation, washing and packaging, resources used during transport and cold storage and the likelihood that, after all that, some of it is going to end up in the bin. According to sustainability group Wrap, in 2012 lettuce accounted for £270m of avoidable food waste, while leafy salad accounted for £150m. It’s difficult to find anyone with a good word to say about bagged salad, unless they’re a grower or retailer of bagged salad."
Meanwhile, right now, we are going through the third lettuce recall in a year. Perhaps it is time to realize that lettuce is stupid.