This article was originally published in Tonic Magazine's September 2019 issue.
Most people realize that eating salad more often just makes good sense! From the most basic to the more elaborate, salads come in many shapes and sizes and are often the best bet when it comes to getting at least the suggested five to ten servings of fruits and veggies a day. Yet it’s key to be aware how salad dressing can make or break the nutritional quality of your salad. Being salad dressing savvy, with a few simple tips and thoughts to keep in mind, can help ensure you do your salad efforts justice.
What to look for in dressings to up your salad game
Most salads start off with good intentions: a mix of fresh greens and vegetables, extra toppings for nutrition and crunch, and a splash of delicious dressing. It’s that last step though where things can go really well or really wrong. With growing emphasis on whole, ‘clean’ ingredients, it’s important to know what to watch for in the salad dressing section and how to navigate the array of choices.
From traditional vinaigrettes to creamy favourites, the harsh reality is that many store-bought salad dressings are made with highly processed and refined oils, like soybean or canola, which are pretty much void of nutritional value and taste. Whether homemade or store bought, a preference for high quality ingredients like cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a great start. The benefits of EVOO are many, and the rich taste ensures a little goes a long way. Note that good quality EVOO will slightly harden when refrigerated, so give your dressing a little time to relax for easier mixing and pouring. It’s worth the wait.
Another simple tip is to be on alert for ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t have in your own kitchen. Most home kitchens don’t stock artificial flavours and colors, preservatives, fillers, stabilizers and gums! Many store-bought salad dressings unfortunately sneak these ingredients into their recipes so if you don’t recognize ingredients, that’s a pretty reliable sign to take a pass. A good way to visually assess if a product might contain fillers, gums or stabilizers is to check for separation of the oil from the other ingredients. Separation is a natural occurrence in salad dressings and a sign of good, clean quality.
When shopping for a more healthful salad dressing, watch out for refined sugars, including high fructose corn syrup. Flooding your salad with sugar can spike your blood sugar, make you hungrier later, and add inches to your waistline. If you like sweeter dressings, look for more natural sweetening ingredients, like maple syrup and whole fruits.
Beyond the ingredients, the nutrition facts panel, mandated by Health Canada for all products sold in Canada, will also steer you in the right direction. Not only will you see the total fat per serving, but watch out for any presence of trans fats. The source of fat is of utmost importance, so look for healthy options like EVOO and avocado oil. For sugar content, ideally, salad dressing should be 2g or less per serving. For sodium, look for levels well below 100mg per serving. Whole food ingredients like lemon, fruits, herbs and spices are where the natural flavour punch should come from.
Making your own salad dressing is a great option and can be very easy. Start with a premium quality oil, add in some lemon or vinegar for acidity, stir in a handful of herbs (fresh chopped are fantastic), and finish with some spices, sea salt and maybe dijon mustard for flavouring. For those times when homemade is not an option or when you need a change of pace, be assured there are a growing number of healthy store-bought options these days.
Be mindful of what section of the grocery store you shop for your dressings! If your dressings are not refrigerated, it’s a give-a-way that the ingredients have likely been cooked to be sterilized and made shelf stable. You don’t cook your homemade salad dressings, so start by looking for varieties in the refrigerated section and check the ingredient list and nutritional profile before selecting. From healthier versions of traditional favourites like Ranch, to exotic combinations, the variety you can find in-store, has the potential to take your salad from the everyday to the extraordinary!
Finally, if you have food sensitivities, are avoiding specific allergens, seeking out organic products or following a certain food lifestyle, like vegan or paleo, check the labels carefully to ensure they meet your needs. Looking for official certifications on labels is important but reading the ingredient list is your best bet for having full confidence in your choices.
For people inspired to eat more plants, salads are a menu staple. Drizzling on a dressing or using it as a dip not only adds an important flavour boost but has the potential to add a hearty dose of nutrient goodness. Some salad dressing makers are going the extra distance for you by amping up their recipes with tasty and healthy ingredients you might not ever consider boosting your homemade recipes with, including superfoods like chia, nutritional yeast and apple cider vinegar.
Adding amazing flavours to your vegetables, from traditional Caesar to the more adventurous Japanese, can be easy, delicious and nutritious. No need to compromise with today’s growing choices. Consider expanding your healthy meal horizons by exploring new ways to use dressings to add sass to your meals. Consider using dressings as marinades for plant-based proteins, as dips for your favourite veggies or even as a stir-fry sauce.
Whether sweet, savoury, creamy or herb-based, what you drizzle on your veggies should be as good as your veggies! Sometimes it just takes some savvy label reading, and a sense of culinary exploration, to help ensure your salad packs the punch you were looking for.
Author: Kristi Knowles, CEO of Mother Raw