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Are You Undermining Your Healthy Salad with Low-Quality Dressing?

fresh salad in bowl surrounded by vegetables

We all know that the leafy greens in salads are packed with nutrients.  They don’t contain cholesterol and are naturally low in calories and sodium.  This makes salads an excellent choice when we are focused on healthy eating or watching our waistlines.  Imagine sitting down to an eye-catching bowl of colorful greens and veggies – maybe topped with sizzling grilled chicken or chickpeas; and then undermining its healthful benefits with a low-quality salad dressing.  

illustration of 3 salad dressing bottle labels

Truth About Store-Bought Salad Dressings

One truth is, even when watching calories, we want our food to taste good; and salad dressing fits the bill.  Unfortunately, we typically use more bottled dressing on our salad than the label outlines as a serving portion.  This not only increases calories, but also the intake of several ingredients we might best avoid.  I’ve added a list of ingredients below that many store-bought salad dressing varieties list on their labels.   I haven’t captured all labeled ingredients here, but this gives you an idea of what you might find in a simple bottle of salad dressing on the grocery store shelf.

  • Inflammatory Oils (soy, corn, canola, grapeseed, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, rice bran, peanut)
  • Saturated Fats (coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil)
  • Added Sugars (added during processing on top of any natural sugars – including high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, maltose, dextrose)
  • Added Sodium (salt – typically will have the word Sodium or Disodium in the ingredient)
  • Preservatives (Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate & Monosodium Glutamate (MSG))
  • Flavor Enhancers (Mono-Sodium Glutamate)
  • Stabilizers (Modified Food Starch)
  • Emulsifiers (Soy Lecithin, Xanthan Gum, Polysorbate 80)
  • Thickening Agents (Xanthum Gum)
  • Freshness Additives (Phosphoric Acid)
  • Color Additives (Titanium Dioxide, Synthetic Dyes – Red 40 & Yellow 5)

Tips For Making Better Store-Bought Choices

Understand Labels

Begin to educate yourself on the contents of bottled salad dressing. As much as it is important to know what’s in your product, it’s also essential to look at what’s not in it.  We often relate the term “fat-free” to healthy eating; but, consider this:  fat is the most nutrient-dense ingredient in a salad dressing.   Fat helps our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) found in salad greens and proteins.  Additionally, bottles labeled “low fat” or “fat-free” may often contain other less nutritious ingredients (like sugar or sodium) to maximize on flavor lost by removing fats.  It is important to opt for healthy oil bases in salad dressings such as extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil.  Unfortunately, bottled dressings rarely contain these healthier oils.

Note That Organic Brands Follow Stronger Standards

Environmental Working Group (EWG) states:  “Organic packaged foods, including salad dressings, must comply with strong standards that protect consumers from exposure to potentially harmful food additives, including titanium dioxide, Red 40 and Yellow 5. Organic packaged foods also have fewer highly processed ingredients and less saturated fat, added sugar and sodium.”  Store-bought organic salad dressing can still, however, contain inflammatory oils.

Check Out The Refrigerated Section in Your Grocery Store

Refrigerated salad dressing is likely preservative-free. Your grocer may also have some yogurt-based options in the refrigerated case. Greek yogurt not only offers the benefit of extra protein and calcium, it also enables you to enjoy a smooth, creamy salad dressing free of unhealthy fats.

Pay Attention to Calories Per Serving Size

EatingWell recommends choosing salad dressings that have no more than 150 calories and no more than 2 grams of sugar per 2-Tablespoon serving.  It is also recommended to stay below 130-150 mg. of sodium per serving.

Hands chopping vegetables for a salad

Easy, Healthy Homemade Alternatives

Simple Vinaigrettes With Healthy Oils

According to Vail Health, oils and vinaigrettes are the way to go!  Extra-virgin olive oil is tasty on its own and rich in antioxidants. These antioxidants can help fight off inflammation and may reduce risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and obesity.  They also help in skin healing and lowering cholesterol.  When you select olive oil, look for 100% extra virgin olive oil.  Look for single-source or or single-origin oil.  This means that it will be the purest and healthiest form – it won’t be mixed with older olive oil or other oils.  Single-origin olive oil can be traced back to a specific location and a specific farm.


Vinegar offers a bright and tart taste and is very low in calories. 

  • One Tablespoon of Balsamic Vinagar = approximately 14 calories
  • One Tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar = approximately 3 calories

Balsamic vinegar contains acetic acid.  Acetic acid has strains of probiotics that can aid in digestion and gut health . 

Apple cider vinegar contains pectin, which may act as a prebiotic.  Prebiotics are food for beneficial gut bacteria.

Pool of olive oil with dots of balsamic vinegar
Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is a good source of citric acid, vitamin C and polyphenols – which are help your body manage inflammation and protect you from oxidative stress.

¼ cup of lemon juice = approximately 14 calories

If you’re unsure on ratios, I recommend an equal measurement of both olive oil and lemon juice; then adjust one up a little to your liking.  I use this recipe by Love and Lemons as one of my staples if you’d like to try it.

Greek Yogurt 

The cup of Fage Greek yogurt in my fridge has a total of 80 calories for a full 5.3 oz. container.  Using Greek yogurt allows you to skip on heavy cream or mayonnaise; but still provides the creamy texture that some people enjoy.  As a comparison, my Whole Foods 365 mayonnaise label reflects 110 calories per one tablespoon. Greek yogurt also provides a variety of health benefits and contains calcium, protein, probiotics, iodine and vitamin B12.

Hope this has given you some food for thought when it comes to choosing healthy, delicious salad dressings.  Let me know what works for you!

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