HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


Bag Lettuce...do they all smell like a Chemical Factory?

Never buy the stuff but bought some baby spinach that was a on sale and it had this strong chemical odor...is this the norm?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I buy arugula in bags but have never noticed an odor. 'Course maybe because arugula has its own smell.

    1. most of them do, because of the solution the packers use to clean it. i find the odor so offensive that i stopped buying the bagged stuff a long time ago. since i ended up washing it anyway, it wasn't any more convenient than buying it loose or in bunches.

      1. It may be the norm. I have smelled an odor every time I've ever used a bag. Not a bad odor, but certainly not the smell of fresh lettuce. Obviously it's what they wash it in.

        1. Last place I worked we bought it in commercial sizes (5lb bags). We had to open them the day before and put them in bus tubs in the walk-in to air out the plastic/chemical stench. It was fine after doing that.

          1. I just smelled a "clamshell" of pre-washed spinach and don't smell a thing. And I have very sensitive smell. Do you think it's the bag rather than the product itself?

            4 Replies
            1. re: c oliver

              I've always thought it was the bag as it doesn't have a "smell" when I buy in a plastic box or the bag helps keep the cleaning solution strong. It got so bad for me that I just can't buy those bags anymore.

              1. re: grouper

                interesting point. it's very possible that the clamshell packages are more breathable/porous than bags, allowing the chemical odor to dissipate.

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  I think you're right. My mom taught me this ridiculous process to go through to buy bagged lettuce (I almost always buy the clamshell) and it still doesn't work half the time. In order to get the least smelly bag, you have to make sure the bag is not very wet and that it has very little air in it. Once you get air/wetness, that thing is going to smell to high heaven when you open it up. I still look for the dryest clamshell, but I rarely open one up that smells.

                  1. re: queencru

                    I look for a relatively dry bag, too. Also a good sell-by date. Finally, if you see even one decaying leaf, don't buy that bag.

            2. don't they wash the stuff in some kind of chlorine solution (or something! don't quote me)

              1. bagged salads smell makes me feel ill. I would rather buy a lettuce and some loose leaves and make my own.

                1. A few years back I was hitting the salad bar at work pretty regularly at lunch (I work at a hospital, and for a captive audience, we could do a lot worse for the most part). Around that time I started itching and getting these galloping hives, and was quite the mess. I would take a round of prednisone, it would go away, and when I stopped the cortisone the hives came right back. That happened twice. I finally went to urgent care because I was such an itchy mess, the doc put me on Zyrtec and something else and it finally went away, but in the meantime I had tired of the salad bar and moved on. This is making a short story long, but we had been complaining amongst ourselves that they didn't wash the lettuce and it smelled vaguely like formaldehyde. I haven't bellied up to the salad bar the same way since, and have heard other stories of people with digestive upsets and hives and so forth regarding the salad bar.

                  That's why I ALWAYS wash my greens even if they're 'prewashed' and 'organic'. There's something they're treated with to make them stay fresh longer and it doesn't agree with me. If you grow your own, they absolutely never smell like that.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: EWSflash

                    A few years ago she started having a reaction to baby carrots that was similar to your salad bar reaction. She would have baby carrots in her lunched, her lips would swell, eyes watered, and was generally itchy all over. Carrots peeled and cut at home are fine, but the stuff pre peeled/cut and treated at the store makes her sick... I have no doubt that the culprit is something in the treatment that keeps pre-prepped veggies fresh.

                    1. re: EWSflash

                      My daughter is away at school, and can't eat at the food service salad bars because something makes her throat itch terribly. She is now getting that same reaction from bagged lettuce. Must be some kind of chemical in the lettuce and salad bar items that cause it.

                    2. Modified Atmospheric Packaging.
                      When the bags are sealed, the regular "air" is removed and replaced with another gas to retard spoilage.
                      That's why that bagged lettuce ships well, stays fresh in the grocery and in your fridge, UNTIL you open it, and then it resumes its regular schedule for spoiling when it's exposed to normal air.
                      Sometimes it's nitrogen or carbon dioxide, but I've been told that there are more advanced methods that can be used. All naturally occurring gasses. Can't remember what they are....
                      Just open the bag early enough to let the greens breath some fresh air for awhile. They'll be fine.


                      4 Replies
                      1. re: MakingSense

                        Bagged lettuce doesn't stay fresh though. I can't tell you how many I've opened before the expiration date that were completely rotten/inedible.

                        1. re: queencru

                          It's been a while but I used to work for Dole and for Fresh Express. The air in the bags (and the bags themselves) are designed for the respiration rate of the vegetables in the bag. The air itself is only different from regular air in its proportion of gases. There's nothing unusual in it. Theoretically, the bagged vegetables should last longer than regular ones but it depends a lot on the handling. You're having to trust that the vegetables are quickly cooled after being picked and then held at that temperature the whole time until it gets to your store and that's not always the case, obviously. In the summer, theoretically, the problem is worst because the boxes have to be loaded, unloaded, shipped, etc. As truck are unloaded, it's not uncommon for them to leave them in the heat before putting them back in the refrigeration; the same with the grocery store end.

                          As for the smell that most CHers complain about, it's probably from the chlorine bath (a long tube of chlorinated water that they're washed in). Some people have more sensitive smell and notice it but most, believe it or not, don't. It doesn't surprise me that CHers who like food notice it more. And, I've heard that Asians are more sensitive to chlorine smell.

                          1. re: chowser

                            I'm not talking about the smell of chlorine. The smell is distinctly formaldehyde-like. I don't think they're getting lettuce from Dole or Fresh Express. I've used those a lot and they don't have a strange odor.

                            1. re: chowser

                              I know this is an older post but I have just gotten sick of ordering a salad while out or buying salad to eat at home and it tasting like phemaldehyde. I agree with you that the Dole products never have this taste. When I am in a restaurant, I have no idea what kind of brand they are using but I do know immediatly if they have used a lettuce with that distinct preserver and have not bothered washing it. I have asked every restarurant whether it be large chains or locally owned if they have ever had anyone complain of the chemical taste on their lettuce and they all say, no. I find this hard to believe ,however, my husband nor any of our friends have ever tasted what I taste. So weird! I first noticed this taste while in college in 1989 eating a taco at Taco Bell. Gradually since then I have tasted it in more and more restarurants. It really does not matter the "type" of lettuce or "bag", it is some kind of preservative on the lettuce. I buy lettuce from Sam's- usually the romaine-recently it started having this taste as well, when washed-taste disappears. It can't be good for us and I am perplexed that the majority of people out there can't taste it. For me it taste like eating salad that has been drenched in pine-sol, so strong that I can't eat it. I wish I knew more about this........

                        2. Great replies!
                          For me its a chlorine smell that is overwhelming..
                          I just don't understand how a consumer can buy and use bag lettuce.

                            1. re: Caralien

                              I'm curious what toxic chemicals she's talking about, with the gassing and if she's gotten it (or Sophie Uliano) from a reliable source.

                              1. re: chowser

                                I don't like my food smelling like gas upon opening, and this list put me off:

                                I'll still be purchasing packaged produce (ie bagged or clamshelled spinach) when I can't pick them up at the Farmer's Market, but it all makes me uneasy even if the chemicals are deemed to be in perfectly safe quantities by the FDA.

                                1. re: Caralien

                                  CO2 isn't toxic, though. Plus, the bags aren't blasted with CO2 but the higher content is due to natural respiration of lettuce. It's a far cry from "the leaves have to be gassed with some horribly toxic chemicals, Uliano says" from the greenliving article. While I try to be as "green" as possible, I've found there are far too many sites out there that don't have all the facts.

                                  I don't love packaged salads and generally make it myself (or maybe I should say assemble since it's just cutting and throwing together). But packaged is quick and easy and, if we have some around, my kids eat more vegetables when I can't do it. I've read that spinach intake has increased something like three fold since it's been packaged. Anything that gets people to eat more vegetables isn't a bad thing, IMO.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    My mother, an industrial-grade dilettante if there ever was one, use to go off on tirades about fruits "being gassed with ethylene gas (make distateful and superior face here) and how she would have ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with it. I think she equated the gassing of fruits and vegetable with concentration camps and The Man trying to poison us or some illogical blend of the two. I tried and tried to tell her that she was doing the same thing when she put a green tomato in a bag with a banana, but she flat-out refused to believe me.

                                    1. re: EWSflash

                                      I do that with under-ripe avocados too.

                            2. As others have noted, I notice that smell with the bagged varieties, but not with the plastic containers. I dont buy the bagged stuff.

                              1. Buy the stuff all the time. Never had this problem.

                                1. Just bought some more Spinach and I aired the bag out for awhile before saute with garlic and it was fine but the first crack of the bag...whoa Nellie..

                                  1. Are you buying the organic kind? I have never noticed a smell at all (and I have a sensitive sniffer). Maybe I am just not paying attention when I first open it?

                                    1. Buy bagged greens quite often. I always wash them as I can smell the chlorine or whatever solution they use to wash the stuff. "Triple-washed, no rinsing needed" my ass.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: tommy

                                        'Triple-washed, no rinsing needed" my ass'...
                                        love that!
                                        ; )

                                      2. Haven't had this issue lately and I buy bagged produce often (got some of TJ's arugula right now). My thought is that it may be absorbing something as it's delivered or that it's an inferior product. Still, I can't help but feel that most of this is just an overreaction. Besides, just because there's a smell doesn't mean that it's harmful.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: ediblover

                                          It's unlikely that it's harmful. But it doesn't smell good.

                                        2. I suppose they are convenient, but I've never bought any bagged lettuce or bagged spinach or any bagged salad mix and find the thought of doing so offputting. I would assume most cafeteria and run-of-the-mill restaurant salad bars do use the stuff and one has no choice then, so I usually avoid ordering salads in low-quality places. When I do get it sometimes at places sometimes I do notice a slight smell, but not really a chlorine or formaldehyde smell - mixed in with suggestions of pieces of the stuff beginning to go south. I'll probably pick at it and leave the rest aside then.

                                          For salads at home, what's wrong with buying individual heads of lettuce and whatnot and trimming them/washing them yourself as needed? It doesn't take that long!

                                          5 Replies
                                            1. re: huiray

                                              In the winter I buy bags of romaine hearts - no chemical smell on those - and practically no waste either. Takes two minutes to trim, rinse and tear to pieces. For a more colourful salad, I might buy a clamshell of baby greens but more likely a head of radicchio to mix with the romaine. Not only is it convenient and inexpensive but a 3-pack of romaine hearts lasts quite a while without deterioration. Why would I need pre-cut salad greens? Seems to me that every step in cooking that you allow someone else to before you buy the item do adds both cost and the potential for unknown hazards to enter your meal. Yes there are times when it can't be avoided but for something as simple as a salad it seems ridiculous.

                                              1. re: Nyleve

                                                I think the thread is about those greens that are in air-tight packages (arugula, spinach), rather than products like romaine, which are often not.

                                                1. re: tommy

                                                  Yes I understand that. I was just saying that the downside of using those products, in my opinion, doesn't warrant any small time-saving or convenience they might provide.