Leafy greens.  You know it.

  2015 February     Food   Vegetables


Salads can be delicious.  They can also be a great source of phytonutrients.  If you choose the more leafy, green forms of lettuce (such as Romaine), they can provide a good source of folate, Vitamin K, and Vitamin A.  Generally, the leafier, more colorful varieties of lettuce are known to have more antioxidants.

Some people say you should always wash your lettuce before eating it.  Is that true? 

Let's find out.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

Somewhere Else

Carried On The Wind

The Solution


Somewhere Else

If you bought your lettuce in the store, do you know where it came from? 

I'm not talking about the store shelves.  What I mean is:  where did it come from before it got there?

It was grown somewhere else. 

The typical "somewhere else" is a place where they spray liquid manure on the fields.  Manure is much cheaper than chemical fertilizers, and it could be argued that it's better for the environment. 

Except for the pathogens that it carries.

There is a fine line between telling you what's actually in liquid manure, and grossing you out so thoroughly that you never want to eat anything again.  I'm going to try to stay north of that line, but we're going to find out if the pathogens in manure could pose any threat to your health.  By way of unwashed lettuce, that is.

Carried On The Wind

Many people seem to think that if you don't see anything crawling on your lettuce, then it must be clean. 

Problem is, some of the world's nastiest things are microscopic.  That means they are so small you can't even see them with a magnifying glass.

When you eat unwashed lettuce, you are in fact eating some particles that came out of a farm animal's digestive tract.  That's the lower digestive tract, if you know what I mean. 

I already mentioned that farming operations spray liquid manure on fields.  When the manure dries up, microscopic cysts can blow in the wind.  And they land on other crops.  In fact, the sprayers put aerosolized manure at least eight or ten feet in the air, where it is carried by the wind.  I would post a photo, but I said I was going to try not to gross you out.

Can animals transmit these things to humans?  Can it happen by eating unwashed produce?  The real answer is probably "yes", and "yes".  How likely it is from any particular instance, no one knows for sure... but that's the point.  There's no reason to take chances with unwashed produce, when you don't have to.  

There have already been outbreaks of pathogenic Salmonella and E. coli from lettuce.  There's also Yersinia enterocolitica and several other bacteria known to afflict humans.  Let's also not forget the dread Listeria monocytogenes, because (A.) it can be deadly, and (B.) it can grow at refrigerator temperatures.  (If you want to kill the bacteria, mild bleach water would do reasonably well.  Whether to use this on lettuce might be the subject of another article.)

Parasite infections are more difficult to detect, and it seems there hasn't been as much study in that department.

A study in Food Control (28(1):47-51, Nov. 2012) tested 180 samples of lettuce.  They found intestinal parasites on 100% of the samples.  That's every sample of lettuce tested.  Among the parasites was Entamoeba histolytica, which can be deadly.

Lettuce is not something that sits around for months before you eat it.  That means the cysts could still be viable.

There were plenty of other nasties they found. 

Medical professionals generally don't test for parasites unless there are obvious symptoms.  (Tests tend to cost money, especially in the USA.)  This is why parasite infestations are probably a lot more common than we know.  They don't produce enough outward symptoms for anyone to notice them.  But they drag down your health slowly. 

The Solution

There is no need to stay permanently grossed out.  Like other food types, there is a way to prepare it safely.

First of all, get one of these right now.  If you eat salad, this is one of the best inventions in history.

OK, ready? 

Start out by rinsing the bulk lettuce under the faucet.  Try to get the water in between the lettuce leaves (easier with Romaine and that sort of thing.)  Rinse it as thoroughly as you can. 

Next, drain the excess water, then cut the lettuce into salad-sized pieces.

Third, put the lettuce into a salad spinner.  Run it under the faucet, turning the pieces over thoroughly.  Dump the excess water.  Then, spin the lettuce dry!  Pour this water down the drain, too.  You might notice it's green or has some silt in it. 


Do these steps before you add anything else to the salad.   I would also do this before making any kind of a raw green smoothie with kale, spinach, or any other leafy green.


Could you get sick from eating unwashed lettuce?  Absolutely.  Will you get sick from any particular incident?  That's the thing:  no one knows.  Why take the chance?  Wash your lettuce thoroughly, and you probably won't have to worry about it.  

Besides, who likes the feel of silt between their teeth?

"Say, why is this salad gritty?"

"Mine's not like that."

"Huh, weird.  You did wash it, right?"

"Umm... no?"

There's no need to take chances like that (and yeah, that was an actual conversation with "someone").  If you eat lettuce even once in a while, get yourself a salad spinner, pronto.

I could have used this page to review any expensive gadget I wanted, but here I am telling you to get a cheap salad spinner.  That's because I like to help you get the best products to make life easier.  Please use the links on here to buy your gear;  it's the only way I can keep this site online and bringing you helpful articles like this one.

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