Fresh and flavorful: Broccoli sprouts salad and buttermilk ranch dressing

The importance of salad vegetables is currently being questioned as feeding the world population takes focus. A recent Washington Post column described lettuce as a "leafy-green waste of resources." Other researchers have criticized salad vegetables as "almost all water."

Yet salads can offer nutritional benefits, especially when you don't load them up with high-fat dressings, croutons, cheese and bacon bits.

Lettuce is the No. 1 cause of food-borne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for 22 percent of all food-related illnesses in 1998-2008, which is a reminder that it's a good idea to wash all leafy greens before consumption, even if there's a triple-washed declaration on the package.

Not everything on the local salad bar is best consumed raw, according to Elizabeth Jeffery, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois-Urbana. Her lab focuses on biochemical and nutritional diet components. Cruciferous vegetables -- broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, Swiss chard -- offer better detoxification benefits when lightly steamed. Heat penetration releases enzymes that help the liver clear compounds that can be toxic to the body. Frozen broccoli does not offer the same benefits because blanching degrades the compounds needed to release sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, which have been linked to cancer prevention.

Sprouts can be dangerous because of salmonella contamination, but growing your own is easy. Hydroponically grown broccoli, radish and alfalfa sprouts offer nutrient benefits. Raw salad greens also offer fiber.

Here's a look at the benefits of one-cup servings of various greens:

Romaine lettuce: 76mg folate, 14mg vitamin C, 1,456 IU vitamin A

Red leaf lettuce: 28mg folate, 10mg vitamin C, 1,064 IU vitamin A

Iceberg lettuce: 31mg folate, 2mg vitamin C, 182 IU vitamin A

Radicchio: 24mg folate, 3mg vitamin C, 111 IU vitamin A

Arugula: 19.4mg folate, 4mg vitamin C, 474 IU vitamin A

Alfalfa sprouts: 11.9mg folate, 3mg vitamin C, 51 IU vitamin A

Radish seed sprouts: 36.1mg folate, 11mg vitamin C, 149 IU vitamin A

Ideally you should lightly steam cruciferous vegetables before adding them to salad greens, then garnish with radish and tomatoes. Cooking tomatoes increases the lycopene benefits. Because the lycopene in tomatoes and the vitamin A benefits from salad greens are lipid soluble, fat is important in your salad dressing.

Betty Wedman-St Louis is a licensed nutritionist and environmental health specialist in Pinellas County and author. Her website is betty-wedman-stlouis.com.

Recipe:

Broccoli Sprouts Salad

and Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

1 cup fresh broccoli sprouts

¼ cup thin cucumber slices

1 plum tomato, sliced

1 red pepper slice

2 tablespoons Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

For the dressing: 

½ cup buttermilk or kefir

½ cup plain whole milk yogurt

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 scallions, chopped fine

¼ cup chopped fresh basil or dill

For the dressing: Combine all ingredients in bowl. Whisk until blended. Chill until ready to serve.

For the salad: Arrange sprouts, cucumbers and tomato slices on plate. Top with red pepper and drizzle on dressing.

Makes 1 serving.

Nutrition information per serving, with 2 tablespoons of dressing: 67 calories, 1g protein, 1g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 182mg sodium.