We get Letters v. 24: Lettuce in a bag

This arrived in my inbox the other morning:

Hi Kate

I have been reading your column for about 2 months and LOVE it. I am learning a ton of really great things. I have been looking on the internet for an answer to the following question – What is it that they do to lettuce before they package it in those bags? You know what I am talking about? The lettuce almost has a scritchy feel to it when I chew it? I am getting to the point that I can hardly stand it.

Thanks in advance . . . . .

Mb in Portland OR

Thanks Mb!

Ah yes, that bastion of “convenience” – prepackaged bagged lettuce. The idea behind bagged lettuce was to keep lettuce longer, as well as to remove that tedious chore of…what was it called? Oh yeah, using a knife to chop the leaves.

But is there a difference between bagged lettuce and the regular heads of lettuce?

A lot of it has to do with how the bagged lettuce is processed. And lo and behold, I found this bit of information from Arizona:

Bulk harvesting of lettuce has become more popular in recent years, because of the popularity of prepackage salads. Specific fields may be grown for bulk harvesting, or in many cases, bulk harvesters will follow the wrapping machines, harvesting heads not suited for field packaging. Bulk harvesters consist of large crews of people who cut heads and place them in large cardboard or plastic bins. Bins of high quality bulked lettuce may be slated for the fast food restaurant industry. However, most are transported to salad plants where they are sorted, washed with a dilute chlorine solution or fumigated with ozone, and then chopped for prepackaged or ready-made salads in sealed plastic bags. This type of processing is known as “value-added” packaging.

The answer to your question is in the above paragraph. What you’re tasting is probably chlorine.

Now some raw heads of lettuce are also treated with chlorine (it’s used to kill worms that may be on board), but from what I could find in the last hour of research is that it’s use is not as prevalent as it is in your pre-packaged lettuce. The amount of chlorine used is said to be over 20 times the levels of chlorine than a swimming pool, but I could not find any documentation to support that claim.

The solution? Wash your lettuce well and dry it with a salad spinner. Of course this runs contrary to what some professionals would like you to believe.

Quick side note discovery: A recent report in Minnesota compared the bacteria count of various forms of lettuce, from pre-packaged to simple heads.

Anderson found bacteria in all the samples of lettuce, even the bagged kind which said the lettuce was “triple washed” and “ready to eat”.

“We did not find any E-coli, so that’s a good thing,” Anderson said.

The lettuce with the lowest bacteria count was the simple, unprocessed head of leaf lettuce.

I love finding out that kind of thing.

Thanks again Mb, I hope this helps!

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