Vegetables: From Sweets to Beets

By Liebman, Bonnie | Nutrition Action Healthletter, December 1991 | Go to article overview

Vegetables: From Sweets to Beets


Liebman, Bonnie, Nutrition Action Healthletter


There is no such thing as a bad vegetable. (That is, not until food manufacturers turn some of them into potate chips, french fries, and receptacles for hollandaise or butter sauce.)

The food industry's dastardly tricks aside, some vegetables are better than others. Yet few people seem to know or care.

Many of America's favorite vegetables--like iceberg lettuce and celery--are among the least nutritious. And the unsung virtues of vegetables like collard greens and kale will probably remain so, because a new law will soon require nutrition labeling only on the 20 most popular vegetables. (Labeling of others will be optional.)

THE DUDS

The typical "salad," for example, combines some of the least nutritious vegetables. Its base is iceberg lettuce, now the second most popular American vegetable after potatoes. Eat a whole cup of iceberg and you get ten percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (USRDA) for...well, nothing.

Likewise for salad vegetables like cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, and raw mushrooms. Only tomatoes exceed ten percent of the USRDA for vitamin C--if you eat half a tomato.

Other popular vegetables are decidedly lackluster in the nutrient department. Celery sticks may be easy to hold, onions may add incomparable flavors, and beets may make borscht. But nutrients are not their forte. And green beans barely squeak by with some vitamin C.

True, there's nothing magic about the FDA's somewhat arbitrary rule that a food has to have at least ten percent of the USRDA to be a "significant source" of a nutrient. One cup of shredded iceberg lettuce, for instance, has eight percent of the USRDA for folate. So eat a cup-and-a-quarter and the level becomes "significant."

The point is not that putting iceberg lettuce in your salad is bad, but that spinach or romaine lettuce is much better.

THE POWERHOUSES

It's the beta-carotene that sends sweet potatoes and carrots to the top of the chart. Each has more than four times the USRDA. A sweet potato also supplies half the USRDA for vitamin C and an impressive 3.4 grams of fiber, even without its skin. (The government has no numbers for sweets with skin. Go figure.)

Then there are the dark leafy greens (or is it dark green leafies?). Spinach, collards, kale, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are the decathletes of the vegetable kingdom.

Not only do they excel in vitamins A and C (no squeaking by here), but they offer some iron and calcium. (Sometimes the calcium in spinach is bound by oxalic acid, though, which means your body can't use it.)

LOST IN THE MIDDLE

Some of the middle-ranked vegetables are full of surprises. …

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