I have thrown many a temper tantrum in front of the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store, and here’s why: Ninety-nine percent of dressings available – including the refrigerated varieties and the innocent-sounding vinaigrettes – are crap. Yes, crap!
Allow me to explain. When I grocery shop, I follow a few guidelines that help me avoid highly-processed, non-nutritious foods and ingredients – salad dressings included. First, I ignore the front label since its purpose is to convince you that the product is “healthy,” regardless of the truth that lies within the box. Instead, I head straight for the ingredient list on the back label – and you should too.
I challenge you to find a store-bought salad dressing made with 100-percent extra-virgin olive oil, a high-quality, good-for-you anti-inflammatory oil. What you’ll find instead is a number of dressings, including so-called “olive oil” vinaigrettes, that contain inexpensive, inflammatory oils like soybean oil, which tends to be the most common in these products.
Like many vegetable and seed oils, soybean oil is highly refined and so stripped of nutrients. Plus, inflammatory oils like soybean oil are processed at a high temperature, further damaging the integrity of the oil and increasing the risk of rancidity. Refined, rancid oils create inflammation in the body, which is the opposite of what you want when consuming healthy fats. Soybean oil also contains high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which, when consumed in excess, can cause inflammation. The typical American diet tends to be high in omega-6 fatty acids, largely due to excess vegetable oil intake in the form of processed foods.
Organic salad dressings aren’t much better. The organic label means the product is grown without harsh chemicals, but that doesn’t automatically equate to “healthy.” If you peek at the ingredients on an organic salad dressing label, you’ll find that it still contains inflammatory oils. Store-bought dressings – organic or not – rarely, if ever, contain extra-virgin olive oil.
Refrigerated dressings, meanwhile, are likely free of preservatives, but they are also often made with the same anti-inflammatory oils found in their shelf-stable counterparts. The only way to find out is to read the ingredients list.
Buying fat-free dressing isn’t the answer either. The fat is the most nutrient-dense part of a salad dressing, so going fat-free is beside the point. Remember, healthy fats including those found in avocados, nuts, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil are really good for you. When a salad dressing is low fat or fat free, it often contains other, less-nutritious ingredients like sugar and excess sodium to create flavor. Artificial colors and flavors may show up as well.
So what are salad eaters to do? Make their own dressings using extra-virgin olive oil – a healthy fat that’s rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Uncooked, like in a salad dressing, it’s the most nutritious oil. Just look for single origin oils in dark bottles, since that lowers the risk of rancidity. You can also use avocado oil, although it’s better used as high-heat cooking oil. If you do want to make a dressing with it, choose oils that are cold-pressed, as opposed to processed in high heat, which negatively affects the integrity of the oil and increases the risk of rancidity. Craving something creamy? Try starting with a strained yogurt instead of mayo, which is often made with inexpensive, inflammatory oils. Here are a couple of recipes for inspiration:
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil
1/2 cup vinegar of choice (you can also use lemon juice)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh or dried herbs like thyme, oregano or basil (optional)
Whisk together the ingredients and serve. Store for up to 10 days in the refrigerator.
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon capers
Salt and pepper to taste
Puree all ingredients and serve. Store for up to one week in the refrigerator.
Eric Sodicoff MD
Member: Obesity medince Association