Tuesday, January 15, 2013

In Iceberg's Defense

I recently wrote a post about how a “health” food could actually be harmful to your health, and ironically, this post is about how a “junk” food is actually a nutrient-dense health food.

Recently I became involved in an online debate with friends about the health benefits of iceberg lettuce. My opponents relied on the standard troupes… "Its negative calories," "it has no nutrients," "it’s just fiber and water." But is this really true?

If vegetables could sue for lible, Iceberg Lettuce would never leave the court room. Not since the 1800’s when, oddly enough, Americans became convinced that tomatoes were poisonous has a crop been so abused.*

I have to admit that I fully believed all of the anti-iceberg rhetoric for a very long time as well. Only recently did I start to have a new respect for the greatly maligned green. My curiosity was first sparked by Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI score, which surprisingly gave iceberg lettuce a very strong score of 110. "But how could it be," I thought? Surely this must be a mistake!

Then I learned about the antioxidant content of iceberg lettuce. All in all, it has a pretty pathetic ORAC score of 17 (compared to an average ORAC score of 1,157 for plant foods- Kale has an ORAC value of 1,770!) but even this low score is multiple times higher than nearly all animal foods. For instance, Iceberg lettuce has twice the amount of antioxidant units as salmon (ORAC 7), and nearly three times the amount of antioxidants found in chicken (ORAC 6). It only gets worst from there. Milk and yogurt each have a pathetic ORAC score of 4 which ties them with coke, and eggs only get an ORAC score of 2. That’s right; you’d have to eat 8.5 eggs to get the same amount of antioxidants as a similar serving size of iceberg lettuce! And you’d also be getting tons of calories, cholesterol, and saturated fat to go along with it! 

So then I decided to look at the numbers. I was actually pretty surprised.

For 100 calories, Iceberg lettuce has over 100% of your daily RDA recommended consumption of vitamin K and over 200% of your vitamin C. In fact, both of these vitamins are more plentifully found in Iceberg than in Romaine lettuce. For 100 calories, Iceberg also has 6.4 grams of protein and over 23% of your daily fiber needs. It also has over 100% of your vitamin A requirement  200% of your folate needs (this is particularly important for women of childbearing age), and has nearly 40% of our daily Manganese and 23% of our Omega 3s with an impressive 3:1 count of Omega 3 to Omega 6 (researchers claim most diets are too heavily skewed toward Omega 6).

So how much is 100 calories worth? Well it is about the size of a medium to large head of lettuce. Chances are you are not going to eat an entire head of lettuce in one sitting. Still the point remains, this food has several health benefits and should not be avoided or shunned, especially if the choice is between iceberg and a non-whole plant based vegetable or fruit. I’m the first to admit that iceberg lettuce is not the most nutrient-dense food, but it’s not empty calories either. While I prefer the taste of darker more substantial greens, like kale and collards, and ideally our diets should include these, my point is there is room in our lives for iceberg as well. As I wrote in my last point, eat the veggies that you enjoy most, because even if they are not the superfood champions, they are still a whole lot better than the alternatives.

*So the story goes that Americans believed tomatoes were poisonous and in 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson decided to prove they were not harmful by eating a full basket of them on the steps of a court house in Salem, NJ. I’ve heard two endings to the story. One is that he successfully proved tomatoes were not poisonous, and slowly tomatoes reentered the American diet, the other is that the day following eating the tomatoes, he suffered severe diarrhea and as a result, no one in the state ate tomatoes for several more years. It’s hard to tell which ending is correct.  I suppose you can just choose which ever one you prefer, as that is how good lore gets spread.

Further Reading:
Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, Bøhn SK, Dragland S, Sampson L, Willey C, Senoo H, Umezono Y, Sanada C, Barikmo I, Berhe N, Willett WC, Phillips KM, Jacobs DR Jr, Blomhoff R. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010 Jan 22;9:3.

Nutrient Density numbers taken from: nutritiondata.self.com
See also:
J. Novick, "Iceberg Lettuce A Lesson in Nutrient Density" 3/21/2008.


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this! My diet is so restricted at the moment, if you can believe it, the only green I can have is lettuce! So I've been juicing it and trying to convince myself that it's worth eating. Wahoo!

    1. Katie, wow! a diet without kale? I don't even want to imagine! If lettuce is the only green you can get, you're probably taking in way more than 100 calories so you are definitely getting lots of nutrients! Glad this helped!

      Also do be aware that some nutrients and nearly all of the fiber is lost in juicing.

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  3. This is awesome! I am totally enlightened. I often get iceberg lettuce added to take-out meals (like Mexican), simply because I enjoy some fresh greenery in my meal and sometimes this is the only option. I guess I have been doing slighly better in the nutrition department than I previously thought.

  4. Very glad to learn this! I'd pretty much stopped buying it altogether but my mom used to make salads from iceberg lettuce and endives all the time, I guess she knew a little something I didn't!

  5. Thanks for setting the record straight, but I would like to point out that it's still not ok for restaurants to offer iceberg with tomato and call it a salad. Get creative, people!

  6. Sorry but once you've had kale, spinach and collard greens, iceberg lettuce is not worth consideration. I want the maximum nutrition per calorie and those three are the best. I buy a product that combines all three plus a few other ingredients. Its become a dietary staple. I exceed my daily requirement of vitamin A, C, K and calcium from just this one product alone.