Why Bagged Lettuce Is Never Worth Buying At The Grocery Store

When perusing the lettuce section of your local grocery store, trying to decide which of the many options to bring home with you, it can be hard to ignore the allure of bagged salad. With bold statements of convenience printed all over the packaging, this pre-washed, pre-cut option promises to save you some effort in the kitchen. 

However, the extra steps involved in industrial processing make bagged lettuce more prone to the development of dangerous bacteria, such as listeria, salmonella, and E.coli. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which monitors food safety as a national public health concern, reported at least nine instances of bagged lettuce recalls from 2021 to 2023.  

Food safety isn't the only reason to avoid bagged salad and opt for a good old-fashioned whole head of lettuce. A fresh head of lettuce is better for affordability, environmental impact, and nutritional content. You may have to contend with a little extra dirt, but buying your lettuce intact, just as it looked while growing in the farmer's field, can help you lower your spending on groceries while reducing your carbon footprint, eliminating a source of single-use plastics in your daily life. The facts prove that you should skip prepackaged lettuce and bring home your greens in reusable mesh bags instead.

Lettuce that is safer and better for your wallet

Food safety is the most urgent reason to avoid pre-washed, pre-cut lettuce. Bagged salad is susceptible to microbial contamination because the greens often travel long distances, from where they're grown to where they're sold. They come into contact with several different environments, employees, products, and pests along the way. Since the lettuce is then distributed to many areas, the dangers of a contaminated batch cover a lot of ground. A bagged salad recall issued by Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. in January 2022 impacted a whopping 30 U.S. states. Foodborne bacteria like listeria can not only cause fever, headaches, and painful digestive symptoms, but even fatal infections.

Beyond being a safer option, a comparison of whole head lettuce versus bagged lettuce shows that the former is a more affordable option. For instance, at Wal-Mart, you'll pay about 30 cents per ounce for a bag of romaine lettuce, so just under three dollars will get you ten ounces of the so-called "ready-to-eat" stuff. Meanwhile, a whole head of lettuce only costs $1.97, and that head is likely to weigh more than a plastic bag of greens that's halfway filled with air. This is increasingly important for your grocery budget, as produce farmers around the world are affected by climate changes, causing a rise in the price of lettuce at the grocery store.

Health benefits of whole head lettuce

When you skip bagged lettuce, you open yourself up to discovering the many types of lettuce that are out there. Bagged salad usually includes the typical romaine, iceberg, and sometimes smaller greens like spinach. Not only is fresh lettuce more exciting, but it may have more nutritional benefits as well. 

Bags of lettuce are sometimes filled with nitrogen gas to extend the shelf life of the greens. This may keep your bagged lettuce looking fresh, but its nutritional value, such as the amount of vitamins C and B, may degrade with time. It's easier to ensure your lettuce was just picked and is still at its nutritional peak if you select whole head lettuce. If you're worried about keeping your lettuce fresh without plastic or nitrogen to preserve it, you can try the ice bath hack to make crispier salads.

Lastly, while pre-washed bagged lettuce is touted as a time-saver, the high risk of contamination during processing means that whether you buy it shredded or whole, you will still want to wash your lettuce. Knowing this, why not spend a few extra minutes washing and cutting whole head lettuce? It won't take much more time, and you'll reap all the benefits of a fresher, more nutritious veggie — with less risk of illness, to boot.