The Deli Detective Reports on Salad Dressings

February 7, 2017

By Tamara Brown, MPH, RD, LD

article_healthyeating_oil-vinegar.jpgOne of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “What should I use for salad dressing?” This can be a daunting question with the variety of options available at the grocery store. So I, the deli detective, am here to take the case. Let’s take a look at the ingredients in some common commercial ranch dressings.

Investigate the labels before you make a purchase

I will start with the dressings we all may know and possibly love, but that are not friends to our salads or to our bodies: Hidden Valley®, Kraft®, and Wishbone®. These big brand labels have large ingredient lists full of preservatives and artificial ingredients.

Here is an example of what you may see on a commercial ranch dressing label: soybean oil, monosodium glutamate, artificial flavor, modified food starch, phosphoric acid, polysorbate 60, artificial color, and disodium EDTA.

These additives cause problems for many people. For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer, can lead to headaches, body pain, and asthma symptoms. Phosphoric acid is used to acidify foods and is also found in sodas. It has been linked to lower bone density in several studies. Acid is an important ingredient in a dressing, but a better choice would be a natural option such as lemon juice or vinegar, not phosphoric acid. Artificial coloring has been associated with behavior problems and difficulty concentrating. A dressing with artificial ingredients could never be created in a home kitchen because it is not real food. It is a container of chemicals, not something you want to consume.

Another ingredient you may see in bottled salad dressing is xantham gum, considered a relatively safe additive. This is a thickener and stabilizer often used in gluten free baked goods in order to hold the product together. It is made by fermenting a carbohydrate such as glucose with a bacteria to produce a complex carbohydrate which can be ground into a powder. This can be produced from corn, soy, or wheat. For food-sensitive individuals, it would make sense to double check the origin of the product you are using at home.

Leave fat-free options on the shelf

In our Weight & Wellness Class Series, we teach people that fats help our bodies absorb the vitamins and minerals in vegetables, which is why we never recommend fat-free salad dressing. Pouring a fat free dressing full of artificial ingredients on a salad will not help your body absorb all the nutrients in a fresh salad.

Not all oils are created equal

Many people choose not to buy commercial dressings found in large grocery stores, but the challenge to find a good pre-made option becomes more difficult when we compare the smaller, more natural brands. Often times natural brands contain real food ingredients, but differ in the kind of oil used.

A common, yet incorrect assumption is that dressings kept in the refrigerated section are better than their shelf-stable companions. Marzetti™ and Bolthouse Farms®, two common brands found in the cold area, are both made with soybean oil.

Soybean oil is a highly refined, high heat processed fat. Because it is difficult to extract oil from a soybean, chemicals are required for the process. Hexane is often the chemical used to extract the oil, and because hexane is toxic, it must be removed before human consumption. In order to do this, the oil is heated to a high temperature, which removes the toxin, but damages the fat. Damaged fats harden our cells and arteries which leads to malfunction and poor health. Even a product containing organic soybean oil should be avoided. Although the soy is organic, the same hexane process may be used to extract the fat. All of this may seem confusing, so I’ll make it simple: avoid soybean oil in any form.

A better option is a dressing made with an expeller-pressed vegetable oil, such as canola or sunflower, found in Annie’s Naturals® or Drew’s® dressing. Expeller-pressed means applying heavy pressure to the nut or seed until oil comes out, without the use of added chemicals. Companies using the chemical-free process often make a point of putting it on the label. If the label does not specify expeller-pressed, then it may not be as good a choice. In order to verify this, I contacted one salad dressing company whose ranch label simply says “canola oil.” I was told the oil is processed using Hexane rather than being expeller-pressed. This is something to be wary of, but choosing a natural product with canola oil is still a better choice than a dressing containing artificial ingredients.

Homemade dressing is always your best bet

When it comes to dressings, homemade is definitely best in the sense that the ingredients can be controlled. But, if you are unable to make your own, there are some options available that are fine choices, specifically Annie’s or Drew’s made with expeller-pressed canola or sunflower oil. Just be sure to check the label because not every flavor is made with the same fat. Bragg® vinaigrette made with olive oil is also a great pre-made option.

To make your own easy vinaigrette, check out our Healthy Salad Dressing recipe. I hope you enjoy your salad with this tasty homemade dressing or now know how to choose a healthy store-bought brand.

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