Plant biologist Ilya Raskin


Ilya Raskin is a professor of plant biology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

Nick Romanenko

In these diet-conscious times, few foods receive more praise than blueberries, that powerhouse of a fruit loaded with polyphenols, which are the nutrients known to protect us against diabetes, cardiovascular disease, memory loss, inflammation, and cancer. Blueberries share the stage, to some extent, with a handful of other brightly colored fruits and vegetables also known for having polyphenols and other beneficial compounds, collectively known as phytonutrients.

Enter, stage left, a new actor to the “super foods” all-star cast: Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce. The burgundy-colored lettuce was recently created by Ilya Raskin, a professor of plant biology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and his staff, who developed it through natural methods by using tissue cultures and loaded it with phytonutrients. Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce—which is rich in vitamins A and C and the mineral manganese and which has two to three times the amount of polyphenols than blueberries—has some big advantages over the fruit as well. Because of their short growing season, blueberries are in limited supply and thus are expensive. They are also full of sugar, rendering them a dicey proposition for people who have to manage diabetes, and blueberries contain more calories than lettuce.

“Lettuce is one of the most widely consumed vegetables after potatoes,” says Raskin. If he and his lab members could boost the polyphenol content of red leaf lettuce to match or exceed that of blueberries, he figured he would have a bona fide winner. When Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce was fed to mice, it led to a significant decrease in blood glucose and insulin resistance over regular lettuce. Raskin published results of his lab studies in the scientific journals PLOS ONE and Nutrition.

Rutgers has patented Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce and licensed it to Nutrasorb LLC, a Rutgers spinoff company that specializes in enhancing phytoactive compounds in foods. Nutrasorb, in turn,  granted a license to Shamrock Seeds to be the exclusive seed dealer for the lettuce. The first grower to offer Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce is Coastline Family Farms of Salinas, California, which launched sales in October under its NutraLeaf trade name. Growers are not required to use the Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce name; however, Nutrasorb’s “Food4Good” trademark will be on product labels.

The lettuce may be packed with nutrients, but does it taste any good? Sharon Palmer, a dietician and author of Plant-Powered for Life: Eat Your Way to Lasting Health With 52 Simple Steps and 125 Delicious Recipes (The Experiment, 2014), wrote on her blog that the lettuce is “tender and delicious.” What’s more, the burgundy color will be a beautiful counterpoint to the predominant green of a salad.

The development of Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and support from Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. — Carl Blesch and  Cindy Rovins CC’79