Take a walk through any grocery store and you almost need salad tongs to pluck your way through the salad products.
Not only can you find dozens of varieties of bagged lettuces and oodles of salad dressings, but there are also myriad toppings - from toasted nuts and seeds to crunchy croutons, dried fruits, crumbled cheeses, prepackaged chopped veggies and ready-to-toss real bacon bits.
"It's huge. ... This has been a major trend for the lettuce industry, for the retail industry and for consumers," said Karen Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketers Association. The group forecast $12 billion in sales of fresh-cut produce last year. That was up from about $5 billion in 1997 and just over $6 billion in 2001.
Means estimates that the trend began about 15 years ago as consumers began to encounter a greater variety of salads in restaurants.
"What we see that happens a lot is folks will see something in a restaurant or on the Food Channel and they'll say, 'Oh, I can do that. Dried cherries or toasted almonds, wow, that's not hard at all.'" Means said. "Savvy marketers are making sure the ingredients are available."
Americans' emphasis on healthier eating is having a huge impact as well.
According to the Mintel consumer research organization, consumer health awareness has led to "phenomenal growth of the health food industry," and salads are a single item consumers can count on for healthy eating.
That is if they don't load their salads with cheeses, croutons and higher-fat salad dressings. Salads made with vinegar and oil, fruits and a variety of greens are the healthiest options.
Mintel also reports that traditional vinegar and oil are enjoying a makeover. According to Mintel, in the first quarter of this year, more than a dozen new vinaigrette dressings showed up on U.S. grocery store shelves.
Restaurants also are experimenting with new ways to present salads, which encourages home cooks to do the same.
Still, most salads appeal to us because they are simple to make.
Mixing it up
Some of the products out there:
Salad Spritzers, a dieter's dream by Wish-Bone - salad dressings in three varieties that you spray on your lettuce, one calorie per spray.
Dried fruits in many varieties, including cranraisins, orange-flavored cranberries, combinations of bananas, apricots, coconut and raisins, etc.
Sunflower seeds, pine nuts, flavored almonds, pecans and walnuts, plus good old- fashioned peanuts.
Jars of crunchy salad topping combinations and bacon bits.
Tubs of cheese crumbles - blue, goat, gorgonzola and mozzarella.
Pre-boiled eggs - now, really, are we that pressed for time?
Dressings, dressings, dressings. Freshly made, processed and dried packages that you mix with fresh ingredients.
Lettuces, lettuces, lettuces. Romaine, Italian blend, spring mix, spinach, etc.
Want more? Visit the Canned Food Alliance Web site at mealtime.org for a new idea that replaces oils in salad dressings with canned fruits or vegetables. Also, visit dressings-sauces.org and kraftfoods.com/goodseasons.
Tuscan Chicken Salad with Arugula and Artichokes
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup Good Seasons Italian Vinaigrette with extra virgin olive oil dressing, divided
2 cups each: torn arugula, Romaine lettuce
1 14-ounce can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
2 medium plum tomatoes, cut into wedges (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese crumbles
4 fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips
Place chicken and 1/4 cup dressing in resealable plastic bag. Seal bag. Turn bag over several times to evenly coat chicken with dressing. Refrigerate 30 minutes to marinate.
Preheat grill to medium heat. Remove chicken from marinade. Discard bag and marinade. Grill chicken 6-8 minutes on each side or until cooked through (170 degrees). Remove chicken from grill and cut into strips.
Combine arugula and Romaine. Place on serving platter. Top with artichokes, tomatoes and chicken. Drizzle with remaining dressing. Sprinkle with cheese and basil.
goodseasons.com. Nutritional analysis courtesy of KRT
Per serving: 451 calories, 42 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fat, 84 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams saturated fat, 14 grams fiber, 1,830 milligrams sodium.