How To Choose a Healthy Salad Dressing

February 7, 2024


article_healthyeating_oil-vinegar.jpgWhat makes salad dressings healthy? It’s a question many of our clients and podcast listeners ask when they are transitioning to a real food diet. Finding a healthy salad dressing can be a daunting task with the variety of salad dressing options available at the grocery store!

In this article, we’ll cut through the confusion and supply you with the essentials for choosing store bought salad dressings or creating a healthy salad dressing from scratch that complements your nutrition goals.

The Key To Healthy Salads

Before we get into what to look for when choosing a dressing, let's talk about why we want the healthiest salad dressing in the first place. The dressing isn't just a throw away condiment. It sometimes can make or break your dish flavor-wise AND it is a key component to a healthy salad.

At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, eating vegetables is a huge part of our real food plan. We often recommend folks try to get in five cups of vegetables a day and what better way to get that in than with a big ol salad?!

But have you ever felt like a bowl of lettuce feels a little like rabbit food? That's where eating in balance comes into play! To make our salads a balanced meal, we want to fill that salad bowl with plenty of leafy greens, top it with plenty of other vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, green beans, pea pods - any of your favorites that add some texture or crunch. Then you add the cooked animal protein - aim for 4 - 6 ounces in the form of chicken, steak, ground meat, tuna, etc.

To top it off, we encourage you to add in plenty of healthy fats, which could be a sprinkle of cheese, some slices of avocado, sunflower seeds, sliced olives, a salad dressing!

Why healthy fat? Natural fats will help you absorb the fat soluble vitamins in your veggies (think vitamins A, D, E, and K), help keep your blood sugar stable, and add to the satiety you feel after your meal. Depending on the dressing, the flavors can help round out the flavor of your dish to give you variety and so you're hitting all the flavor categories for your taste buds, like adding a little sweet and sour to the bitterness in your greens, adding a savory flavor to your bright veggies, or adding a bold flavor to your leftover proteins.


How To Choose Store Bought Salad Dressings

We know from working with thousands of clients in clinic and in our classes that schedules are busy and convenience is sometimes the name of the game. You CAN find store bought healthy salad dressings to fit the bill, but you'll need to pay close attention to the nutrition facts label. Not the front of the bottle! Flip that baby over and let's look at the back for the ingredient list.

The Problem With Store-Bought Dressings

Despite their convenience, store-bought dressing can have negative impacts on your health. Many of these products are high in sodium, added sugar, and refined oils. Most commercially-made dressings contain artificial ingredients and preservatives that may not be beneficial for your body.

For example, here is what you might see on a commercial ranch dressing label: soybean oil, monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial flavor, modified food starch, phosphoric acid, polysorbate 60, artificial color, and disodium EDTA.

These common additives add flavor and prolong the shelf life in bottled dressing, but they can also cause problems for people. For example, refined oils like soybean oil can be inflammatory. MSG, a flavor enhancer has been known to cause headaches, body pain, and asthma symptoms. Phosphoric acid is used to acidify foods and is also found in sodas, but it has been linked to lower bone density in several studies. Oil and acid are important components to a dressing, but there are much more natural (and delicious) options that actually give you nutrient value.

Avoid dressings that use refined, damaged oils like soybean, corn, cottonseed, vegetable, or canola oil. Unfortunately, these oils are inflammatory and have lost most of their nutrients in the processing. In order to get oil from things like soybeans and cottonseeds, which are not naturally oily, the oils need to be extracted and refined using very high heat and through the process of refining, degumming, bleaching, and even deodorization. If we are going to the effort to prepare and eat vegetables, we don't want to cover them with inflammatory, damaged oils!

Healthier Oil Options

The good news is there are a couple brands out there who do use quality ingredients. The biggest thing to look for in healthy salad dressings is the oil it's made with. For the healthiest salad dressings, you want one made with a good, natural oil like extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. You want to look for bottles that say expeller-pressed, cold-pressed, or first-pressed on the label.

These good, natural oils are made with the least amount of damage to the oil. Since they are made from whole foods that are naturally oily, they don't need extreme chemical processes to extract the oil from the olive or the avocado, so you are getting the full nutrient benefit from that whole food.

Healthy salad dressing is the perfect application for extra virgin olive oil due to its rich flavor and numerous health benefits. Because it's a lower heat oil, it can easily get damaged when cooking at high heats, but in a cold application like a dipping sauce or dressing, it's the perfect fit.

Cold-pressed, pure oil made from olives has been found to reduce cholesterol levels, promote heart health, and protect against certain diseases. Olives have polyphenols, which are plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties with positive effects on health, such as reducing inflammation or even preventing cancer.


Homemade Dressings:

When looking for healthy salad dressings, we are big fans of making your own salad dressing, especially because there are not a ton of store bought options with the right oils. One of the benefits of using a homemade dressing is having control over the quality and types of ingredients used in your healthy salad dressing recipe.

Creating homemade versions of your favorites allows for more creativity in flavors as well, so you'll never get bored! There's lots of ways to add variety and freshness to your dressing. Making them at home means avoiding added sugar, artificial flavors and harmful oils while using simple ingredients accessible from your grocery store. Nothing beats the fresh flavor of freshly squeezed citrus with herbs from your garden in the summer!

Making your own can feel daunting, but don't be intimidated! You can easily make you own dressing in a food processor, small blender, or just simply throw all the ingredients into a mason jar and give it a good shake. We'll walk you through how to make your own.


Nutrient-Rich Ingredients For Homemade Dressing

A well-balanced, healthy salad dressing not only avoids unhealthy ingredients, but also incorporates nourishing elements. Components like extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar and fresh herbs and spices amplify the taste of your dressing while boosting its nutritional value.

Some essential additions for a nutritious salad dressing are:

  • Fat: olive oil, avocado oil, buttermilk, full fat Greek yogurt, canned coconut milk, nut or seed butter, or puree of avocado

  • Acid: balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, or lime juice

  • Flavor: garlic, ginger, mustard, anchovies, miso, fresh/dried herbs, coco aminos, Braggs aminos, soy sauce, honey, maple syrup

Now you need the right ratios! Our in-house chef Marianne says you always want two parts fat (1/2 cup) to one part acid (1/4 cup) with one to two tsp of your flavor. Then blend or shake it all up until it emulsifies. It should be good for 10 days in a mason jar in the fridge!

Fresh Herbs and Spices

Adding fresh herbs and spices to your salad dressing can bring a whole new level of flavor. Some great herb options for this include parsley, basil, dill, thyme, coriander, mint and sage. Not only do these herbs enhance the taste of your dressing, but they also provide additional nutrients and health advantages.

These ingredients are abundant in vitamins such as A, C, and K, as well as antioxidants that shield our bodies from harmful free radicals. Additionally, fresh herbs contain polyphenols- compounds known for their positive effects on health, such as reducing inflammation or even preventing cancer.


Our Favorite Healthy Salad Dressing Recipes

After discussing the importance of homemade dressings and incorporating nutrient-rich ingredients, let’s delve into some specific recipes. These are a few of our preferred options for creating healthy and delicious salad dressings that don’t compromise on taste. They serve as great starting points to inspire you in making your own unique dressing.

Greek Yogurt-Based Dressings

The demand for creamy and protein-rich dressings has led to the rise in popularity of Greek yogurt-based options. Some widely loved salad dressing choices made with Greek yogurt include ranch, Caesar, blue cheese, and Thousand Island.

Whip up an easy homemade Caesar Dressing by combining Greek yogurt with olive oil, garlic powder, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, and Dijon mustard. The result is not only creamy thanks to the use of Greek yogurt, but also adds tangy notes from fresh lemon juice that complement various types of salads perfectly.

Tangy Citrus Dressings

Those who prefer a tangy taste in their salads can opt for dressings with citrus flavors. These dressings are made from fresh fruits like oranges, lemons or limes and add a refreshing touch to any salad. They offer the benefit of vitamin C, which is an important nutrient for boosting the immune system.

A simple dressing can be prepared using olive oil along with orange juice, lemon juice, zest and shallot.

Incorporating citrus into your dressings brings a brightness to the salad while also providing your body essential nutrients such as vitamin C. Fun nutrition fact: vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron, which you get from meat and dark leafy greens.

Nutrient-Dense Vinaigrettes

We love good nutrient-packed vinaigrettes like balsamic and apple cider vinegar-based options. Try a Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette containing fresh cilantro, garlic, lime juice, maple syrup/honey blend, ground coriander and sea salt.

Another delicious option is the Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette made with sesame oil and ginger, which brings an Asian-inspired twist along with numerous health benefits.

Experimenting With Flavors

As you work towards creating the perfect healthy salad dressing, embrace the wide and thrilling range of flavors available and don’t be afraid to experiment. Consider trying unconventional combinations such as cranberry citrus or strawberry vinaigrette, or incorporating unique ingredients like cashew butter or cumin.

Adding aromatics like garlic and onions can greatly enhance the taste of your dressing. For example, using minced garlic or adding in some red onion can add a new level of flavor complexity to your dressings. Another option is mustard which adds a tangy kick and helps your dressing to emulsify – try different types such as Dijon, whole grain, or yellow until you find one that suits your tastes best.

If you're someone who likes to have the exact measurements to follow, we have a collection of healthy salad dressing recipes in the recipe section on our website, like the Super Simple Ranch Dressing Recipe, Green Goddess Dressing Recipe, Simple Vinaigrette Recipe, and a Healthy Salad Dressing Recipe with lots of spices!

Key Takeaways

  • Homemade salad dressings allow for control over ingredients, enabling you to avoid unhealthy additives and include healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, enhancing both flavor and health benefits.

  • Most store-bought dressings often contain high levels of sodium, added sugar, damaged oils, and additives like MSG and phosphoric acid, which can pose health risks, unlike healthier homemade options. Be sure to check the labels when purchasing a store bought dressing or dipping sauce and look for ones without refined oils, added sugar, and a long list of ingredients.

  • Incorporating nutrient-rich ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice, herbs, and spices into salad dressings boosts flavor and nutritional value, offering health benefits like heart health and antioxidant properties.

Healthiest Salad And Best Salad Dressings

Ultimately, our dietitians like to say, the healthiest salad (and the best dressing) is the one you will actually eat. All of us know what it's like to buy fresh vegetables with good intentions for them only to wilt in the crisper drawer where they then make the quick trip to the trash once we remember they are there.

Find the vegetable combinations you like, top it with a good amount of animal protein you enjoy, and drizzle on your favorite dressing, whether that's a balsamic vinaigrette, Caesar salad dressing, or an Italian dressing. Check labels when you purchase and don't be afraid to make your own (try making one and let us know how easy it is!).

Remember that finding your ideal dressing can take some experimenting and taste-testing. Make it a fun game and don't shy away from tweaking existing recipes while having fun during this culinary journey.


Need to add mayonnaise to your salad dressing?
Check out this article on How To Choose A Healthy Mayo:

Eat This, Not That Mayo


Additional Resources:

READ: 5 Easy Homemade Dressing Recipes with recipes for a dairy-free ranch dressing, poppyseed dressing, and a cashew sour cream with a kick from hot sauce!

READ: Seven Summer Salads | Staff Picks with recipes for a Nicosia salad, taco salad, burger salad, and a chicken salad

TAKE: Healthy Cooking Classes- virtual classes with access to the recording to learn how to use seasonal foods and level up your cooking skills


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