Reconsidering Iceberg Lettuce

Iceberg lettuce is a variety of lettuce with crisp leaves which grows in a spherical head resembling cabbage. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is an annual plant of the Asteraceae family. The Asteraceae family contains the herbs arnica, burdock, boneset, calendula, chamomile, chicory, cronewort (mugwort), coltsfoot, dandelion, echinacea, elecampane, feverfew, gravel root, grindelia, liferoot, milk thistle, tansy, yarrow, valerian, wormwood, and wild lettuce. It also contains the foods sunflower seeds, lettuces, true artichokes, sun chokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), escarole, and endive. And it contains the decorative flowers asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, bachelor’s buttons, daisies, cosmos, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers, and zinnias.

Cultivated lettuce is closely related to the wild lettuce, L. scariola, from which it was undoubtedly derived. Wild lettuce is now widely scattered over the globe, but it originated in inner Asia Minor, the trans-Caucasus, Iran, and Turkistan. Lettuce was served on the tables of the Persian kings of the 6th century B.C. As in the development of the cabbages, the primitive forms of lettuce were loose, leafy, and sometimes “stemmy” types; the loose-heading and firm-heading forms occurred much later.

Lettuce was first cultivated in ancient Egypt as early as 2680 BC, and was selectively bred by the Egyptians into a plant grown for its edible leaves. Lettuce was popular among the Romans about the beginning of the first century AD, and had been brought to a fairly advanced state of culture and improvement. Around 50 AD, Roman agriculturalist Columella described several lettuce varieties – some of which may have been ancestors of today’s lettuces. Common garden lettuce was known in China in the 5th century, if not earlier.

Lettuce moved north into Western Europe. Hildegard of Bingen mentioned lettuce in her writings on medicinal herbs between 1098 and 1179.  Various new forms were described as early as the 15th century, including the butterhead, Latin, and crisphead forms. Christopher Columbus introduced varieties of lettuce to North America during his second voyage in 1493. Its culture was reported on Isabela Island (now called Crooked Island) in the Bahamas in 1494. It was common in Haiti in 1565. In 1586, Joachim Camerarius provided descriptions of the three basic modern lettuces – head lettuce, loose-leaf lettuce, and Romaine or cos lettuce. Lettuce was under cultivation in Brazil before 1650. Lettuce was first planted in California, the lettuce capital of the United States, by the Spanish missionaries in the 17th century. It was among the first garden seeds sown in every European colony in North America. Between the late 16th century and the early 18th century, many varieties were developed in Europe, particularly in Holland. In Northern Europe, most people used butterhead lettuce and the Batavia form of crisphead lettuce. Books published in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries describe several varieties found in gardens today.

Lettuce is very easy to grow, and has been a significant source of sales for many seed companies. Tracing the history of many varieties is complicated by the practice of many companies, particularly in the US, of changing a variety’s name from year to year. This was done for several reasons, the most prominent being to boost sales by promoting a “new” variety or to prevent customers from knowing that the variety had been developed by a competing seed company. Documentation from the late 19th century shows between 65 and 140 distinct varieties of lettuce, depending on the amount of variation allowed between types – a distinct difference from the 1,100 named lettuce varieties on the market at the time. Names also often changed significantly from country to country.

One of the oldest recipes for iceberg lettuce salad is from Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes, a cookbook written by Marion H. Neil in 1916.

Until 1926, iceberg lettuce was known simply as crisphead lettuce, because one of its primary assets (some say its only asset) is that it stays fresher longer than leaf lettucesBecause of its short life span after harvest, lettuce was originally sold relatively close to where it was grown. In the early 20th century, new packing, storage, and shipping technologies improved the lifespan and portability of lettuce and resulted in a significant increase in availability. Bruce Church, founder of Fresh Express, began to experiment with cooling methods and found that by packing lettuce a certain way in ice, he could keep it fresh and crisp. In 1926, Church sent his lettuce by rail from California as far away as the coast of Maine and, as the locomotive steamed its way to each new stop, the town residents would gather along the tracks calling out: “The icebergs are coming, the icebergs are coming!”  The name stuck.

In 1931, the first edition of The Joy of Cooking gave the following directions: “Heads of iceberg lettuce are not separated. They are cut into wedge-shaped pieces, or into crosswise slices.”

In the summer of 1934, 7,000 lettuce workers, 3,000 of whom were Filipino, went on strike over a 10-cent decrease in wages. Many of the workers, especially the Filipinos, suffered arson of their camps and eviction at gunpoint. Although the strike ended after a month with no concessions to the workers, it was one of the catalysts for the farm labor movement.

During the 1950s, lettuce production was revolutionized with the development of vacuum cooling, which allowed field cooling and packing of lettuce, replacing the previously used method of ice-cooling in packing houses outside the fields. By this time, iceberg lettuce dominated the produce aisle. People ate it quartered or shredded. They pulled off the outer leaves and used them as bowls for canned pears.

In the 1970s, Caesar Chavez called for a boycott to protest the working conditions of California lettuce pickers. The boycott and many strikes against lettuce producers eventually led to many producers signing contracts with labor unions. By the mid-1970s, iceberg lettuce accounted for 80% of the lettuce raised in California, and more than 95% of all of the lettuce grown in the United States. Julia Child was a fan of iceberg lettuce (and despised cilantro and arugula). James Beard also liked iceberg lettuce in the 1970s. “Many people damn it,” he said, “but when broken up, not cut, it adds good flavor and wonderfully crisp texture to a salad with other greens”.

By the 1990s, tastes had changed. Mesclun, frisee, endive, spring mix, packaged salads, radicchio, and arugula became widely available in grocery stores. Many restaurants stopped serving the traditional wedge of iceberg lettuce drowned in thick, goopy blue cheese, green goddess, ranch, or Thousand Island dressing. Instead, they served vinaigrette-tossed leaf lettuces, Romaine, and other greens, all more colorful and more flavorful than the familiar iceberg. By 1996, even James Beard was calling iceberg lettuce “watery and tasteless.”

Despite the competition, by 2000, iceberg lettuce still accounted for 70 percent of the lettuce raised in California, but that share is declining. Upscale restaurants around the United States now use frisee, dandelion greens, oak leaf, lollo rosso, exotic cresses, microgreens, sprouts–any green, leafy vegetable that is not iceberg lettuce. However, iceberg still popular at steakhouses and less-expensive and chain restaurants. 

Iceberg lettuce is often regarded as a food low in nutrients, but this is a misconception. A 100-gram serving of iceberg lettuce provides just 0.7% of your daily calories, but it provides between 1% and 30% of all other nutrients except niacin, fat, and sodium. The niacin Daily Value is just slightly below calories at 0.6%, and the fat and sodium are significantly low, which is a good thing. 

Iceberg lettuce can:

  1. Help you maintain your ideal weight. Shredded iceberg lettuce has only 10 calories per cup, making it ideal for weight loss. Iceberg lettuce also contains plenty of fiber. Besides filling you up, fiber improves your digestion, which is essential for long-term weight control. Iceberg lettuce has an average glycemic index of 15, but because it has so few calories, its glycemic load is considered zero, making it a good choice for maintaining optimum blood sugar and for weight management.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. Iceberg lettuce is an excellent source of vitamin K, which helps prevent calcification of your arteries. The folate in iceberg lettuce reduces the concentration of homocysteine in your blood. Excessive levels of homocysteine promote inflammation and increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases.  Fiber also helps remove bile salts from your body. When your body replaces these salts, it breaks down cholesterol to do so. The vitamin C and beta-carotene in iceberg lettuce work together to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. This prevents the build up of plaque.
  3. Build strong bones. The vitamin K in iceberg lettuce helps protect your bones from fracture, helps prevent postmenopausal bone loss. Vitamin A (made from many carotenoids in iceberg lettuce) is essential for bone and tooth growth.  The folate in iceberg lettuce helps prevent osteoporosis-related bone fractures. Iceberg lettuce is also high in  manganese, which facilitates formation of bone.
  4. Fight free radicals. Icceberg lettuce is a good source of vitamin C, which is a strong antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals. It prevents oxidative damage of your cells, lipids, and DNA, which protects you from many chronic diseases and premature aging.
  5. Fight insomniaThe white fluid that you see when you break or cut lettuce leaves is called lactucarium. This phytochemical has relaxing and sleep-inducing properties similar to opium but without the strong side effects. Simply eat a few leaves or drink some lettuce juice before bed for a good night’s sleep.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Raw Iceberg Lettuce

Nutrient

Value

DV

vitamin K

24.1 µg

30%

vitamin A

502 IU

10%

folate

29 µg

7%

manganese

0.1 mg

6%

vitamin C

2.8 mg

5%

fiber

1.2 g

5%

potassium

141 mg

4%

thiamine

0.041 mg

3%

phosphorus

20 mg

2%

calcium

18 mg

2%

magnesium

7 mg

2%

protein

0.9 g

2%

iron

0.4 mg

2%

vitamin B6

0.042 mg

2%

carbohydrates

3.2 g

1%

pantothenic acid

0.1 mg

1%

vitamin E

0.1 mg

1%

zinc

0.1 mg

1%

riboflavin

0.025 mg

1%

copper

0.025 mg

1%

Calories

14

0.7%

niacin

0.1 mg

0.6%

sodium

10 mg

0.4%

fat

0.1 g

0.15%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

carotene-ß

215 µg

lutein-zeaxanthin

199 µg

crypto-xanthin-ß

0 µg

Unless you buy organic, lettuce can contain a lot of toxins and pesticides. This is because many insects and other organisms are attracted to the nutritious leaves, causing many growers to use a lot of pesticides, and the leaves have a high surface-to-weight ratio, which means that a lot of pesticides can stay on the product and be ingested. Lettuce is on Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen–those foods you should buy organic.

Choose an iceberg lettuce head that is round and firm with fresh, clean outer leaves and compact inner leaves. Avoid spongy or misshapen iceberg lettuce heads and those that have wilted, discolored, or rusty outer leaves. The color of iceberg varies throughout the year, but most people prefer a light- to medium-green.

Whole iceberg heads or torn lettuce can be refrigerated in a sealed container for up to 1 week. Chopped lettuce may show signs of rust around the cut edges a bit sooner.

Core iceberg lettuce by cutting the base out with a sharp knife or by rapping the head sharply, core down, on the kitchen counter, then pulling it out. Rinse under cold water and use a salad spinner or pat the leaves dry to remove excessive water. Cut into wedges, chop, or tear into bite-sized portions for salads.

Iceberg lettuce has a mild flavor and firm, crunchy texture, making it a good choice for salads and sandwiches. When you combine it with other varieties of lettuce, iceberg lettuce contributes a pleasant crunch to salads. Its uniform, pale-green leaves make iceberg lettuce an easy product to work with, making it a good choice for sandwiches and lettuce wraps.

Here are some ideas for using iceberg lettuce:

  1. Shredded iceberg lettuce adds texture to any kind of taco
  2. Update the classic wedge of iceberg lettuce with a drizzle High Omega Vegan Bleu Cheese dressing and a sprinkle of Bac’uns 
  3. Update the classic club sandwich with toasted Ezekiel Sprouted Whole Grain BreadTofurkey, Smart Bacon, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and Nayonaise 
  4. Substitute two sturdy slices of iceberg lettuce for the bread in any sandwich (even a veggie burger)
  5. Use a leaf of lettuce like a tortilla to wrap just about any filling; try it with this Spicy Tofu Lettuce Wraps
  6. Use the large pieces as cups told hold fruit salad

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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