Food

The Chopped Salad Super Craze: How Good Is It for You?

When it comes to health, some of the chains might not be all they're chopped up to be.

Young businesswoman eating a salad while working in office. /Young businesswoman typing on the laptop.
Photo Credit: BONNINSTUDIO/Shutterstock

It’s 12:30pm on any given weekday in New York City. Hungry workers have emerged from their cubicles. Scrolling through Instagram feeds or swiping through midday emails on their cellphones, they join long queues snaking outside fast-casual restaurants tossing and chopping salads to order.

Never mind the double-digit price tag for a small disposable plastic bucket filled with leaves and legumes and maybe some protein: This is the lunch du jour. Countless toppings lure the famished masses (artichokes! Egg whites! Cold, day-old rotini!), who are eager to procure a trendy salad that may take their entire 30-minute lunch break just to order. Office workers can proudly return to their desks with a $15 kale and hormone-free chicken salad in hand, to be eaten solo in front of their computers. In July 2013, the New York Times declared chopped salad the “lunch of choice in the Northeast” and the trend has continued to grow, with some tossed salads thrown into the mix. Today, the “healthy" salad has become the ultimate lunchtime status symbol.

A Big Mac is 550 calories. The frozen ravioli dish I probably shouldn’t have had for lunch was well over 600. But is a salad that much better? For years, we’ve been told that fast-food salads pack in the calories, fat and sugar, but that’s not stopping fast salad devotees. Opting for a salad over a sandwich or other hot lunch may seem like the wiser choice, but that’s not always true.

“Salads aren’t always the healthier option,” says Deborah Orlick Levy, a health and nutrition consultant for Carrington Farms, a New Jersey-based organic foods producer. “If you load it up with cheese and dressing and protein that's fried or coated (think falafel or breaded chicken), you could be consuming twice as many calories and fat grams than if you had decided to go with a reasonably sized sandwich (no fries, of course).”

In July, the New York Post confirmed what many lunchtime salad aficionados know to be true: Restaurant salads are unhealthy and overpriced. In a piece titled “Salad Makes You Fat and Broke,” the Post broke down ingredients, calorie counts and costs of popular chain salads, showing that in order to burn off the 900 calories in a lunch like the $10.25 South Beach Salad at Fresh & Co., one would have to sweat through one hour and 40 minutes of spinning. This wasn’t a groundbreaking find.

In 2007, Consumerist compared fast-food salads to their meat, fried and bread-sandwich counterparts, finding that the salads often exceeded the traditionally unhealthy foods in both calories and fat. Expensive, perishable salads are pretty much limited to the diets of the upper-middle-class and are perceived as both cool and healthy, mainly because they are labeled salads, the Atlantic reported this past July. “We’ve canonized the salad category as a whole as virtuous,” Julie Beck argues, though many of the merits of salads barely balance their shortcomings. Are we being duped into believing these clusters of vegetables are any better than other greasy takeout options?

Health coach Robyn Lanci says the salad chains can be healthy, depending on your choices. Consumers need to be informed about everything they’re putting into their bodies. She explains:

"Sometimes just listing the calorie count isn't enough. Topping a salad with fried chicken can negate any potential health benefits, not to mention a sodium overload. Even light or fat-free salad dressings are usually not a healthy choice. When manufacturers remove fat from something that would ordinarily have it, they have to replace it with something else to compensate. And that's usually sugar, extra chemicals or a combination of both."

Lanci says the healthiest option is preparing your salad at home “so you know exactly how much of what is going into it, and how each [cooked] item you're adding has been prepared.”

In his 2013 ode to home cooking, Cooked (which Netflix recently transformed into a four-part documentary series), food author Michael Pollan warns of the dangers Americans face when they stop preparing their own food. “When we let corporations cook for us, they’re bound to go heavy on the sugar, fat and salt,” he writes. Pollan argues that consumers need to get back into their kitchens, preparing their own meals and taking control of what they’re eating. Easier said than done, when many adult members of a household are working full-time and trendy-looking neon signs lure in anyone with an extra 10 bucks to buy some veggies mixed to order.

In 2001, Colin McCabe and Tony Shure opened Chop’t in Union Square in New York City. That first day, there was a line out the door of the unique chopped-to-order salad chain; cash registers broke down and the inaugural salads were served on the house. Since then, the chain has expanded to almost 40 quick-serve restaurants on the East Coast and has inspired countless spin-offs of its customizable salad program, including the practically eponymous UK derivative, Chop’d.

Sweetgreen was founded in 2007 by three recent Georgetown graduates, Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman. To date, the chain has over 40 locations on the East Coast and California, has raised $95 million in venture capital funding and has collaborated with cookbook author Mark Bittman, sustainable food guru Dan Barber, Momofuku founder David Chang, and musician Kendrick Lamar on special salads like Beets Don't Kale My Vibe. The salad chain also launched the Sweetlife music festival in 2011 (this year’s headliners included Halsey, Grimes and Blondie), a year after launching Sweetgreen in Schools, a program that educates thousands of students annually on healthy eating and is funded in part by Sweetgreen customers' app purchases. Sweetgreen is much more than a lunch option, it’s a lifestyle.

The seasonally rotating menu at Sweetgreen, which works with local farmers to source ingredients at each restaurant, keeps the salad options interesting and frequent visitors out of a salad rut. Chef-designed salads bear the name of celebrities without an immense price tag (the daily tasting menu at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill starts at $88) and are, to this correspondent at least, pretty delicious. As Mashable attested in 2013, Sweetgreen created a company that makes you crave salads.

Another reason many flock to salad chains: The control. Making one’s own lunch at home, shopping for and chopping the ingredients may take just as much time as waiting in line at a salad chain, but the luxury of being able to design one’s own lunch without the hard work or the cleanup is tempting. Customers are paying for the convenience and the satisfaction of feeling like they ate something good for them. Kale does have more vitamins and fiber than a slice of pizza, after all. As the New Yorker reported in “Freedom From Fries” this past November:

"Speed and convenience matter as much as ever to American diners. But increasingly people also demand the information that places like Sweetgreen offer. They want to know what they are eating and how it was made; they prefer to watch as their food is prepared, see the ingredients, and have a sense of where it all came from. And they are willing to pay more for what they perceive to be healthier fare."

For those who are willing to shell out the cash to see their vegetables mixed before their eyes, Orlick Levy recommends building your own salad rather than opting for a highly caloric chef-composed option. Before indulging in the Chop’t Po Boy Salad, you might want to visit Chop’t’s Nutrition Calculator to get nutrition info. “Start with a large base of vegetables—dark leafy greens like kale or arugula are excellent sources of nutrients and high in fiber, so they fill you up and keep you full,” she says. On top of your emerald-hued leaf bed, add a rainbow of vegetables like carrots, red peppers and cucumber and then add high-protein and/or high-fiber options like chickpeas to satisfy your appetite.

Curb the calories by skipping the cheese and opting for avocado instead, which has the “good" kind of fat and still adds creaminess to salad, recommends Liana Werner-Gray, author of The Earth Diet and brand ambassador for Explore Cuisine. Also, choose “the most organic, local and seasonal options as possible,” she says. “These foods have the most nutrients per bite, per calorie.” And of course, be wary of tempting dressings—Chop’t’s California Goddess packs in 160 calories per serving, 150 of which are from fat, and often loaded with refined sugars. Stick to olive oil, vinegar and maybe some salt, pepper and lemon.

Salad chains may not be all they’re tossed up to be, but for those who suffer from some type of vegetable chopping-induced paralysis inhibiting them to create a salad at home, being an educated consumer can certainly elevate the salad chain experience.

Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications. 

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