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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Latest Food Craze: Freshly Cut Vegetables

NEW YORK -- The latest fast-food craze is happening in the produce section of American supermarkets.

See-through bags of sliced or mini carrots, mixed greens, broccoli florets, shredded cabbage and a host of other ready-to-dress salads and ready-to-cook vegetables have elbowed their way to shelves alongside the untrimmed heads of lettuce and cabbage, whole carrots and celery stalks. And this fresh-cut produce is the single fastest-growing segment of the food industry.

If you can open plastic, you can enjoy fresh vegetables at a moment's notice. This has proved a boon to working parents and hungry, hurried dieters.

Sales of packaged salad, a category that barely existed five years ago, reached $889 million in the United States in 1995. Total sales of precut food are expected to more than triple, from $5.2 billion in 1994 to $19 billion in 1999, industry analysts say.

But is packaged produce really safe? How do processors keep vegetables "fresh"? Do they have the same vitamins and nutrients as whole, unwashed, uncut vegetables?

A scientist at the University of Kentucky has studied the vitamin and nutrient contents of vegetables that are cut and bagged. She compared bagged broccoli florets with broccoli stalks that were cut at the same time and found that the florets stayed fresher and contained 15 percent more Vitamin C.

The key, said Margaret Barth, professor of food and nutrition studies at the University of Kentucky, is the processing that fresh-cut produce undergoes. In order to prolong the shelf-life of vegetables, processors have developed a way of putting produce in a state of hibernation by keeping it very cold and by packing it in an atmosphere low in oxygen. The air inside bags of fresh-cut vegetables contains a much lower level of oxygen than the air we breathe. That same atmosphere is credited with retaining vitamins and nutrients, Barth said.