May is National Salad Month. Created by the Association for Dressing and Sauces in 1992, National Salad Month encourages people to incorporate more salads into their daily food regimen.
What is arguably the foundational ingredient in salad? Lettuce! USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports research that is leading to stronger, healthier, more disease-resistant lettuce cultivars. Current funded projects in California and Illinois include the following:
- The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Pacific West Area, in Albany, CA, is working to improve the safety and survival of lettuce during fresh-cut processing and cold storage. Mechanical damage of processed leaf tissue offers new opportunities for the proliferation of E. coli, the main bacterial agent that causes lettuce-linked foodborne outbreaks. Researchers are working to identify lettuce cultivars that effectively reduce population sizes of E. coli upon shredding and cold storage and characterize defense responses on cut tissue.
- The USDA-ARS in Berkeley, CA, is studying the prevention of pathogen contamination in agriculture water in lettuce production. Researchers are developing and implementing a screening tool to test the effectiveness of sanitizer, antimicrobial resistance and tolerance to oxidizing compounds, and provide recommendations on keeping resistant strains from developing.
- The University of California – Davis is enhancing the use of resources to increase sustainable lettuce production in changing climates. This research project seeks to improve water, nitrogen and phosphate use in lettuce, and determine heat/cold/saline tolerance, to improve lettuce’s resilience. The research findings will be shared with breeders and students.
- The University of Chicago is modifying lettuce by altering its genetic makeup without introducing genetically modified genes. Researchers are using tiny fibers to inject substances that will enable changing the gene content of lettuce.
In forthcoming National Salad Month blogs, we will spotlight research projects focusing on salad mainstays like cucumbers and tomatoes. You can find these on the USDA-NIFA website.
by Matt Browning, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-NIFA
Since lettuce is the basis of many salads, feel free to explore which variety you grow and eat! There is a wide world out there beside iceberg. Consider arugula, which tastes earthy and slightly tart with a bold, peppery kick. Or coral lettuce, a looseleaf variety which can be bright green, deep red or speckled. The sturdy, crisp leaves have tight, frilly curls and a mild flavor. Or even mâche, which is sometimes sold with its soil still attached; it features a mild and slightly sweet flavor. (However, because of small leaves, trying to create a whole salad with a base of mâche can be expensive. Its leaves are also very delicate and will bruise easily, so handle with care.)
You can find a whole list of fun lettuce varieties (and recipes!) on the Epicurious website. And feel free to send us photos of your beautiful salad creations this month. We’d love to feature them on our social media!