You’re at the salad bar and you’re feeling oh-so-proud of your decision to skip your usual chicken fingers and fries. You’ve got your kale, cherry tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, shredded carrots, and even some quinoa (…because all the health-freaks are doing it). You even ditched the cheese, and instead of croutons, you opted for nuts and seeds for a healthier crunch. You. Are. On. Fire. But before you start collecting high-fives from your fellow co-workers, I encourage you to turn that bottle of salad dressing around, zoom straight to the ingredient list, and get ready for an honest heart to heart.
Just like most things in life, details matter, and salads are no different. All too often, salad dressings can be the “undo” button, eradicating all of the potential health benefits your salad once had to offer. In that sense, your choice of salad dressing is a total game-changer. This final detail is what separates healthy intentions that lack results, from healthy intentions that are worth celebrating.
While many of us are familiar with the advice to choose vinaigrettes over creamy-based dressings, and to order dressing on the side, there’s way more to the salad dressing story. Here’s a play-by-play of how to take your salad game to the next level:
Know What’s in your Dressing
When it comes to a healthy salad dressing, we want a dressing that enhances the natural flavor of our veggies, but more importantly, we want a dressing that maximizes the nutrient density of our salad. The way we do this is by choosing salad dressings that contain unprocessed, real food ingredients. When grocery shopping, disregard any front-of-package labeling — it’s just marketing. I will be brutally honest here: The marketing directors of salad dressing companies care way more about selling their product than they do about your personal health and wellbeing. So, ignore those mini billboards and go directly to the source of hard data: the ingredient list. This list tells you exactly what is in the product. More times than not, you will find a long list of unrecognizable, low-quality ingredients, including a horrifying array of chemicals and preservatives, as well as a collection of fancy euphemistic words that are synonymous for highly processed oils, refined sugars, and hidden sodium. Stick to salad dressings that only contain ingredients that you can actually buy at the grocery store!
“Free” is a Red Flag
Fat-free salad dressing is a classic example of how front-of-package labeling deceives consumers. Like most “free” things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, there’s almost always a catch. Fat-free salad dressings are no different, as food manufacturers often add sugar and salt to compensate for the absence fat. Generally speaking, in the world of processed food, whenever a company removes a component from their product, they almost always sneak something else into the formula. From now on, be cautious whenever you see the word “free” on any food products. Pro Tip: When reading labels, divide the grams of sugar by four. This tells you how many teaspoons of sugar are in each serving.
Another very important fat fact is that many of the powerful, protective, and health-promoting vitamins in our salad are known as “fat-soluble vitamins” (Vitamin A or beta-carotene, D, E and K). “Fat-soluble” simply means that these vitamins rely on fat to “chauffeur” them across our intestinal wall and deliver them to our cells to be utilized by our body. By eliminating fat from your salad altogether, you are voluntarily ripping yourself off from all of the potential health benefits your nourishing, vitamin-packed salad has to offer. (That’s one more reason to kiss the fat-phobia goodbye.) If you prefer oil-free dressings, be sure to top your salad with avocado, nuts, seeds, or olives to give those fat-soluble vitamins a chance to work their magic!
The Type of Fat Matters
So we want fat in our salad, but what kind? Fat is probably one of the most confusing and misunderstood concepts in the nutrition world. To keep it simple, there are pro-inflammatory fats, also known as omega-6 fatty acids, and there are anti-inflammatory fats, also known as omega 3’s. Since inflammation is tied to almost every chronic disease out there, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, and more, we want to avoid salad dressings that containing highly processed, pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. These fats include soybean oil, as well as corn, safflower, peanut oil, and “vegetable oil” (which is essentially a blend of these highly processed oils). Instead, we want to look for a dressing that uses anti-inflammatory, cold-pressed omega-3 fats, such as olive oil. Heads up: just because the front label says “made with olive oil”, this does not necessarily mean it’s made with 100% olive oil. Many companies will strategically use a cheaper, highly processed, pro-inflammatory oil for the majority of their formula, and then add as little as one single tablespoon of olive oil just so they can slap the word “olive oil” on the front of their label - a smart business strategy to generate sales while cutting cost, and yet another case in point to never trust the front of a label!
How to dress your salad for success
Here are some questions to yourself when selecting a truly healthy salad dressing. Hint, to pass the test, the answer to all of the questions below should be a resounding “YES!”
1. Can the ingredient list be used as a recipe? Meaning, if you were to make a homemade version of this salad dressing, can you actually purchase each listed ingredient at the grocery store?
2. Are these ingredients unrefined, unprocessed, whole ingredients? The closer each ingredient is to its naturally occurring form the more nutrient-dense it is. Avoid words like refined, extracted, isolated, and evaporated – which all imply processing.
3. Is the type of fat used, a “healthy fat”? Great examples include olive oil, nut and seed butters, tahini, avocado, etc.
Ask yourself these questions the next time you are grocery shopping and you will find that unfortunately not many dressings fit the bill. One brand that I recommend is Tessemae’s All Natural Dressings – they offer a variety of flavors and use a short and simple list of ingredients that you can feel good about. Another option is to start making your own homemade salad dressing. (I promise, it is way easier than you think!) Store your DIY dressing in a mason jar, keep it in the fridge for a week’s worth of flavorful, nutrient-rich dressing.
Still sound intimidating? Join me for a “Best-Dressed” Cooking Class at the Philadelphia Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center and I’ll show you how simple it is to whip up a variety of DIY salad dressings in less than 5 minutes.
This article was originally published on Philly.com’s Goal Getter column.