The problem is that there are quite a few pitfalls when looking for high-quality salad dressings in the store. These fall into four categories: serving size, added sugars, less-than-great oils, and other extra ingredients that can be problems.
Salad dressing is one of those foods where we tend not to notice how much we're putting on, and thus "rounding error" can enter in. For example 1½ grams of carbohydrate per serving is reported as one gram, which makes two servings three grams of carb. Also, if you're watching calories, they can add up fast.
One tip for keeping serving size reasonable: It turns out that it really only takes a small amount of an oil-based dressing to coat the leaves of a salad. The trick is to put a small amount in a bowl and toss the salad very well. This not only uses less oil, it tastes better when the salad has an even coating of dressing instead of being poured on the top.
Added SugarsIt's quite surprising how much sugar and other carbohydrate can be added to salad dressings, so it pays to look at the label under Total Carbohydrate, and also the ingredient list. Occasionally there might be a gram of fiber you can subtract from the total, but that is the exception.
In general, reduced-fat dressings have more sugar than "regular" dressings. For example, Girard's Caesar salad dressing has 1 gram of carbohydrate per two tablespoon serving. The same brand has a "light" (reduced-fat) Caesar dressing which has 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving, and a fat-free variety which has 9 grams of carb per serving -- that's over a teaspoon of sugar for each tablespoon of dressing!
Another example is Kraft Buttermilk Ranch Dressing which has 2 grams of carbohydrate per serving, while the fat-free version contains 11 grams.
First Place Prize for Most Sugar in a Salad Dressing: Briannas' Blush Wine Vinaigrette, at 14 grams of carbohydrate for a two tablespoon serving.
Guidelines: Try to find dressings that have zero or one gram of carbohydrate per two tablespoon serving, as well as no sugary ingredients, especially in the first four ingredients on the list. Note also that balsamic vinegar tends to have some sugar in it.
Best OilsThe best oils for salads dressings have high amounts of monounsaturated fats and low amounts of omega-6 fats. (Although omega-6 fat isn't at all a bad thing in and of itself, we tend to get too much in our diets.) Of the easy-to-find and reasonably-priced oils, olive oil is probably the best choice, at 73% monounsaturated fat and 9% omega-6. It also has other good-for-you nutrients. Canola oil has 59% monounsaturated fat and 20% omega-6. Soybean oil, the least expensive and mostly commonly-used oil, is 23% monounsaturated fat and 51% omega-6. Again, a little is fine, but if you use a lot of salad dressing you'll want to steer away from soy oil.
When I was looking at labels, I saw a few called something like "Olive Oil and Vinegar", but it turns out that while the first ingredient was olive oil, the second ingredient was "soy and/or canola oil". Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar is an example of this.
Also, look carefully for partially hydrogenated fat, which is almost entirely trans-fat. Although most manufacturers have dropped this ingredient in salad dressings, it still in appears occasionally -- for example, in Wishbone Blue Cheese Dressing.
Other IngredientsSome people prefer to stay away from foods that have a long list of additives, either because they would prefer to eat foods closer to a natural state or because they don't trust ingredients they can't pronounce. Others find that dressings with a lot of strange ingredients simply don't taste as good, or have a texture that is off-putting. For example, there are quite a few salad dressings on the market whose first or second ingredient is water. Those dressings tend to have a lot of vegetables gums and other ingredients to add "body" back into the dressing. I find it harder to dress a salad with these "gloppier" dressings.
The Best Salad Dressing: Make Your Own!It is incredibly easy to make your own salad dressing. You need:
- Vinegar or lemon juice
- Salt and Pepper
- Optional: Herbs, spices, fruit, other flavorings, mustard (mustard actually helps hold it together so it doesn't separate as easily.)
To make a creamy dressing, start with mayonnaise and/or sour cream as a base, and add whatever flavorings you want. Herb mixtures often work well -- just check for sugar or extra carbs. Thin with vinegar or lemon juice if desired.
To get you started, here are some salads and salad dressing recipes:
- Easy Blue Cheese Dressing
- Greek Lemon Garlic Dressing
- Sugar-Free Thousand Island Dressing
- Sweet and Sour Lime Dressing
- Strawberry Vinaigrette
- Warm Spinach Salad with Bacon Dressing
- More Salads and Dressings
Reference: Brown, Melody, Ferruzzi, et al. "Carotenoid bioavailability is higher from salads ingested with full-fat than with fat-reduced salad dressings..." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 80.2 (2004):396-403