Types of Lettuce Explained: From Crunchy Snacks to Health Superstars

More than just a salad base, lettuce can provide certain essential nutrients for a balanced diet. Learn which lettuce types are the most nutritious and how to incorporate them into your diet for better health.

Health benefits of lettuce

Lettuce can be helpful for weight management, coming in at less than 20 calories per serving, and also a rich source of several key nutrients important for various bodily functions. Below, we provide the most prominent contents and benefits of lettuce.

Rich in dietary fiber

As a source of dietary fiber, lettuce can contain up to 2 grams of fiber per 100 g (approximately 2 cups) serving. That may not sound like a lot, but considering that only about 5% of Americans get enough fiber, any amount you can get through raw vegetables like lettuce is important. Fiber is essential for aiding digestion, lowering cholesterol, and slowing down carb digestion for more stable blood sugars.

Water content

Lettuce is comprised of approximately 94–95% water. This high water content not only contributes to its low calorie count but also makes it an excellent choice for promoting hydration.

Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are plant compounds with the power to help prevent chronic disease. Lettuce contains vitamins A, C, and E, which act as antioxidants to reduce inflammation and fight harmful free radicals in the body. Consumption of other phytochemicals in lettuce like beta-carotene and lutein are associated with a reduced risk of cancer, cataracts, heart disease, and stroke, as well as improved immunity. Additional studies on mice have even suggested anti-diabetic effects due to the active compounds in different types of lettuce.

Vitamins

Apart from A, C, and E vitamins, folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin K are also commonly found in lettuce, which is important for cell growth (primarily in reducing the risk of birth defects during pregnancy) and blood and bone health. Fresh lettuce, depending on the type, can provide up to 16% of the recommended daily allowance for folate, and it is one of the most common foods for obtaining vitamin K.

However, it's important to note that due to vitamin K's crucial role in blood clotting, individuals with or taking medications such as warfarin or coumadin for clotting disorders should seek guidance from their physician or a registered dietitian regarding the appropriate consumption.

Iron

Iron is responsible for healthy red blood cells, and getting enough in your diet can be a factor in preventing anemia, or iron deficiency. Higher iron-containing lettuce like red leaf lettuce can provide up to 15% of your recommended intake, yet it might be important to combine it with vitamin C rich foods to improve plant iron absorption.

3 types of lettuce to incorporate into your diet

All lettuce is good for you, but certain varieties are more nutritious. When it comes to providing the most nutrition from micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate, as well as fiber, darker lettuce types are reported to be the better sources. Try switching out your iceberg lettuce with one of the following:

1. Romaine lettuce

Romaine lettuce
  • How to identify it: tight bunches of long, slender leaves called spears or hearts; often comes in packs of 2 or 3 in the grocery store (if not already chopped and bagged)
  • Texture: crisp and hearty
  • Flavor: mild, a little bitter
  • Uses: holds up well to heavy dressings or liquid to be used in salads or sandwiches; can even be grilled

2. Green leaf/red leaf lettuce

Green leaf/red leaf lettuce
  • How to identify it: large heads of loosely arranged red or green leaves; commonly found in Spring Mix salad kits and at farmers' markets
  • Texture: tender leaves, crunchy stems
  • Flavor: generally mild, a little bitter
  • Uses: versatile for salads or adding to artisan sandwiches

3. Butterhead lettuce

Butterhead lettuce
  • How to identify it: compact head with wide, smooth leaves; find it at the grocery store in a ball shape with some of the roots still attached or already chopped and bagged
  • Texture: tender, buttery
  • Flavor: mild (perhaps the mildest of all lettuce types)
  • Uses: salads and lettuce cups or lettuce wraps due to its large leaves

Other uses for lettuce besides salad

Throwing together a salad or topping your sandwiches with lettuce is great. Raw leaves can be an easy way to make your diet more nutritious. However, if you’re finding yourself in a lettuce rut, you might give some of these alternate preparations a try.

  1. Throw it into a smoothie. Toss a few lettuce leaves into your fruit and/or vegetable smoothie. You won’t even notice they’re there.
  2. Add a new texture to soup. If you use greens like spinach and kale, keep in mind that lettuce is another great and healthy addition.
  3. Warm it up. Grill, saute, or sear a head of lettuce for a new texture and flavor. Simply cut a head of lettuce in half, drizzle it with an oil-based dressing, and place it cut side down into a prepared skillet or onto the grill for 3–4 minutes.
  4. Use it like a cracker. Top lettuce with your favorite cheese, proteins, or dips for a quick snack.
  5. Add it as a finishing touch to noodle bowls, grain bowls, or stir-fries for an extra punch of freshness and color.

Selecting, washing, and storing lettuce

Discover the versatility of lettuce, offering countless culinary possibilities that may leave you with no leftovers. Yet, if you find yourself with a surplus, consider its shelf life. Below are essential tips on selecting, washing, and storing lettuce to ensure its freshness and flavor endure.

How to select lettuce

The produce section of a grocery store provides you with plenty of options for buying lettuce: bagged, whole heads, pre-washed, and organic. The best choice is the one that makes sense for you. Do you value convenience? A pre-washed, chopped, and bagged lettuce may be just the fit. Do you want minimal processing and a lower cost? Then go with the whole head still covered in dirt. Regardless, look for lettuce leaves that are bright in color and intact. Avoid anything that is overly wilted, brown, discolored, or slimy.

How to wash lettuce

Some lettuce comes prewashed, as indicated on the package. However, if not, always be sure to give your lettuce leaves a thorough wash before eating them, since lettuce can become contaminated by soil, water, or during packing and processing. Between 2014 and 2021, a total of 78 foodborne disease outbreaks were linked to leafy greens, mainly lettuce, including E. coli and listeria infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states the best way to wash lettuce and help remove germs is to rinse it under running water and rub away any visible signs of dirt. Then dry with a clean cloth, paper towel, or using a salad spinner.

How to store lettuce

Keep your lettuce fresh by controlling the amount of moisture and air it’s exposed to. Wash only when you are ready to use it, and when storing, place lettuce in a sealed bag or container with some paper towel. Lettuce doesn’t freeze well, but properly stored lettuce will last about 7–10 days in the fridge. Watch for signs of spoilage like yellow or brown spots, slime, and an unpleasant smell to know when it’s time to toss it.

Nutritional verdict on lettuce

With a wide variety of types, textures, and flavors, lettuce can be a versatile way to get more nutrients from food. Particularly when you focus on dark leaf varieties, you’ll enjoy the benefits of fiber, vitamins, phytochemicals, and more for promoting aspects of health like digestion, satiety, and even hydration.

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