We’ll talk more about comparing iceberg lettuce nutrition to its rival greens in a minute. But first, another big reason for iceberg’s bad rap: the fact that it tends to get involved with foods and dishes that aren’t always seen as meeting our collective standard of good for you, notes Largeman-Roth. It’s typically thrown on top of things like nachos and burgers, or tossed with rich, creamy salad dressings, for instance. Of course, there’s nothing actually wrong with eating nachos or burgers, and all foods have their place in a varied, balanced diet. But because they usually don’t have the nutrition profile and glowing health halo of, say, a fiber-rich quinoa bowl, those foods tend to be looked down upon in the nutrition world—and by extension, iceberg lettuce does too. (The way we define “healthy eating” is pretty fraught anyway, given the influence of diet culture and discounting of important factors like joy and connection, food access, and culture.) Change the lettuce’s context by, say, sticking it in chicken and pepper fajitas or tucking it into a hummus and veggie wrap—foods that more people see as being healthier—and it starts to look a whole lot different.
What’s the difference between iceberg lettuce and regular lettuce?
Great question. By “regular” lettuce, let’s say we’re talking about things like romaine, red or green leaf lettuce, spinach, kale, or arugula, etc. Nutritionally speaking, all of these offerings are pretty similar in terms of not being a major source of macronutrients. As with other salad greens, there aren’t many carbs in iceberg lettuce (just two grams per shredded cup), as well as a negligible amount of protein (less than one gram) and virtually no fat, according to the USDA.
It’s in the micronutrient department that iceberg lettuce nutrition starts to diverge. “In general, it doesn’t pack a nutritional punch like darker greens do,” Largeman-Roth explains. “The dark leafy greens contain more nutrients, like iron, magnesium, folate and fiber.”
A quick look at the numbers confirms this. According to the USDA, a cup of shredded iceberg lettuce contains less than one gram of fiber, and only trace amounts of important vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin C, vitamin K, or iron. It’s also pretty low in antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, which are present in higher concentrations in many other leafy greens and play an important role in eye health.1
Darker leafy greens just offer more of, well, all of those micronutrients. Take veritable nutritional powerhouse kale, for instance. It boasts over 3 times as much fiber, almost 10 times as much vitamin A, 14 times as much calcium, 16 times as much vitamin K, and almost 30 times as much vitamin C, per USDA nutrition data. The differences in micronutrient content aren’t always quite so dramatic, but they still tend to be pretty significant across the board. When you look at iceberg lettuce versus romaine, for example, romaine has about the same amount of fiber, but five times as much vitamin K and three times as much vitamin C, per USDA data. On the whole, pretty much any other green will have a greater concentration of micronutrients than iceberg.
What are the benefits of iceberg lettuce?
All of this might make it sound like iceberg is losing the battle of the leafy greens. But it still has some good stuff going for it, and both Feller and Largeman-Roth agree that you should eat it if you enjoy it.