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Prof trying to make iceberg lettuce less uncool

Iceberg lettuce is losing favor with consumers looking for more flavor and nutrition from their salad greens. But one plant science professor is hoping to change that by developing a variety that has longer shelf life and more nutritional value.
/ Source: The Associated Press

You'd never know it by taking a head count at the supermarket, but iceberg lettuce is losing favor with consumers looking for more flavor and nutrition from their salad greens.

Iceberg has been contemptuously called the “polyester of all the lettuce types,” and critics claim it has about as much dietary value as sticking a blade of grass between your teeth.

“Iceberg is 95 to 96 percent water, although it brings a little fiber and folic acid to the table,” said David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. "Compared to others, though, its nutrient content is unbelievably low — about one-twentieth the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens."

For the past half-dozen years, Still has been trying to develop an iceberg variety that is easier to grow, has a longer shelf life after harvest and packs more nutritional value.

So far he has managed to cross iceberg lettuce with some butter lettuces, boosting its levels of antioxidants and vitamins A, C, E and K.

“We don't think it (hybridization) will change the iceberg's taste that much but it is one of the things we're watching,” Still said. “We're aware that iceberg's mild taste has been popular.”

It will be at least a couple of years before a more wholesome iceberg variety is ready to market, he said.

There was a time when iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, said George Ball, chairman and chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the Pennsylvania seed house where the variety was developed in the late 19th Century.

“The whole thing about iceberg is the crunch,” Ball said. “Americans love that crunch in a sandwich. But in the '60s and '70s, the trend started moving toward leaf lettuces. Romaine in Caesar salads, for instance. It was getting harder to find an iceberg being served in restaurants.”

The fragility of leaf lettuces — that they don't take well to freezing, drying or canning, and wilt quickly after being cut from the garden — made them something of a localized market item before the iceberg came along, Ball said. The convergence of iceberg lettuce and boxcar icing — heaping green heads resembling icebergs upon arrival — meant salads could be served fresh anywhere in the nation at any time of year.

“It shipped easily,“ Ball said. “You can't hurt it.”

Then came the fall from favor, or flavor.

In 2006, the nation's growers harvested 175,600 acres of iceberg lettuce, mostly in California and Texas. That was down from 198,500 acres in 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

The romaine lettuce crop during that same period grew from 36,450 acres to some 61,000 acres. Leaf lettuces rose from 46,220 acres to 71,100 acres.

Yet Americans continue eating more iceberg lettuce than any other variety, about 22 pounds per person per year in 2005, the USDA said. Romaine ran a distant second, about 8 pounds per capita.

Iceberg also is popular with weight watchers since it's virtually fat and cholesterol free. A medium-size head contains only about 70 calories.

So until the healthier varieties come along, here are some simple ways to give iceberg lettuce a nutritious lift:

  • Mix it with greener greens that contain heavier concentrations of calcium, vitamins and proteins. Try spinach, arugula, chicory and endive.

  • Wrap the outer leaves around slices of meat and cheese, making a carbohydrate-neutral substitute for sliced breads.

  • Sweeten salads with fruits. Fresh strawberries and pineapple chunks are flavorful candidates in the summer.

If nothing else, remember that variety is as important as quantity in the human diet.

“No single fruit or vegetable provides all the nutrients you need to be healthy,” a Harvard School of Public Health fact sheet says. “The key lies in the variety of different vegetables and fruits that you eat.”