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What's the Healthiest Salad Dressing? How to Make (or Buy) Better Dressing for Your Greens

Take your lettuce even further with these healthy salad dressing tips.

<p>Westend61/Getty Images</p>

Westend61/Getty Images

Salads are the perfect way to include more veggies into your day. And since you’re already eating something nutritious, you might as well make sure your salad dressing is adding to its healthiness—and not detracting from it.

Anyone who’s had a too-dry, too-soggy, or blandly dressed salad knows the dressing can make or break the entire experience, from the way it tastes, to its texture, to its nutritional perks. So what’s the all-time healthiest salad dressing to drizzle over your greens? It all comes down to the ingredients (and what works for you personally!). Here are the healthiest salad dressing ingredients, types, nutrients, and tips, plus red flags to watch out for when shopping, ordering, or making dressings at home.

Related: 7 Salad Dressing Tips From the Pros

Anatomy of a Healthy Salad Dressing

To sound like a broken record, it all comes down to the salad dressing’s ingredients. Typically, the most basic salad dressing formula combines a source of fat and an acid. From there, some add an emulsifier for creaminess and thicker consistency, as well as seasonings and even a bit of sweetener for flavor and dimension. Here’s what to look for within each category to make the healthiest salad dressing choices.

Fats

Green Flag Fats

Choose the healthiest fat sources to get the healthiest salad dressing.

“Ingredients like olive oil, avocado oil, and flaxseed oil provide healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” says Kristen Carli, MS, RD, registered dietitian and owner Expert with Influence. “These fats can help reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol levels, and support heart health.”

Other healthy fat options include full-fat greek yogurt, sesame oil, pureed avocado, and tahini (or other nut or seed butters). Any of these healthy fat sources will also help you absorb any fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) found in your salad.

Related: The 7 Healthiest Cooking Oils—and Which to Avoid

Yellow Flag Fats

Vegetable oils and seed oils have some health-related pros and cons—they are a source of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, but are also higher in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, making them comparatively less healthy choices next to the oils highlighted above. Totally fine to use in moderation, but it’s great to swap in the healthier fats listed earlier when possible.

Additionally, many salad dressings, especially very creamy varieties, employ the use of ingredients like heavy cream, cheeses, sour cream, mayonnaise, and whole milk as their fat source. While these dairy options do come with some of their own nutritional advantages, they’re generally higher in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, too.

Both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are a bit controversial, with conflicting evidence in terms of their impact on heart health. Some studies find that these fats contribute to the development of heart disease while others do not find the correlation to be as pronounced. That said, given we have some evidence that these types of fat may negatively impact heart health, it’s best to approach them with a bit of caution and moderation.



Tips

Side note: Full-fat yogurts don’t quite fit into this category, as they’re a great source of probiotics (gut-healthy bacteria) and the fermentation process required to make them converts some of their saturated fats into healthy unsaturated fats.



Red Flag Fats

Steer clear of hydrogenated fats (look for the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredients list). These are sources of trans fats, which are really not good for your heart health. Trans fats both decrease good cholesterol levels and increase bad cholesterol levels in the body.

Related: These Are the Healthiest—and Least Healthy—Types of Fat to Eat

Acids

Green Flag Acids

Most sources of acid, like citrus juice and vinegars are high in acetic acid, giving them their signature, zippy tang. Acetic acid has antimicrobial benefits, aids in blood pressure and blood sugar regulation, and even supports heart health. Plus, citrus-based acid sources contain high levels of vitamin C and plant compounds, helping to reduce inflammation and boost immune health.

Yellow Flag Acids

While most acids are healthy choices, certain vinegars contain more added sugar than others. These include balsamic (especially balsamic glaze), flavored vinegars, and certain varieties of apple cider vinegar. Though the added sugars in these vinegars are minimal, it’s something to consider if you really need to be diligent about your added sugar intake (like those with metabolic disorders).

Related: The 9 Best Kinds of Vinegar for Cooking—and 2 You Should Never Use

Emulsifiers

Green Flag Emulsifier

Of all the emulsifying options for salad dressing, dijon mustard is by far the healthiest option. “Dijon mustard is low in calories and adds a tangy kick to dressings,” Carli says. Check the label before purchasing, as some mustards can be laden with sodium—less than 150 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon is ideal.

Yellow Flag Emulsifiers

Other emulsifiers, like egg yolks and mayonnaise, are certainly not red flags (eggs are good for you!), but they are higher in dietary cholesterol and saturated fats.

Seasonings and Flavoring Agents

Green Flags Seasonings

Fresh or dried herbs and spices add flavor without extra [sugars] or sodium, while offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” Carli says. Great options include basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, scallions, ginger, garlic, onion, shallot, red pepper, and black pepper—though any herb or spice you love works!

Yellow Flags Seasonings

Miso paste and nutritional yeast can also be healthy flavoring agents that will really amp up your dressings. Miso is a fermented food, offering healthy bacteria to enrich the gut microbiome (it can be pretty high in sodium, so take note and use mindfully). Nutritional yeast is high in B vitamins, but the sodium content can add up quickly as well.

Red Flag Seasonings

Look out for sneaky, high sources of sodium and added sugars in flavoring agents. “Dressings high in sodium can contribute to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues when consumed frequently and excessively,” Carli says. Outside of salt, other sneaky sources of sodium include certain cheeses, soy sauce, miso, and worcestershire sauce.

“Meanwhile, excessive intake of added sugars can contribute to inflammation, insulin resistance, and increased risk of heart disease,” Carli adds. Beyond the easily recognizable ingredient of cane sugar, added sugar in store-bought dressings can come in the form of high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and maltodextrin.

Honey and maple syrup are other common sources of added sugars in salad dressing, but do come with an array of health-supporting nutrients and bioactive compounds, making them slightly healthier choices.

For the Healthiest Salad Dressings, Avoid Additives and Preservatives

Many store-bought dressings may also contain mystery ingredients including various preservatives, artificial flavors, and artificial coloring. These additives are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, because they are relatively new ingredients, their long-term health impacts are not super well-studied or fully understood yet, making them something to avoid consuming in excess.

Making the Healthiest Salad Dressing at Home

Taking into account the most nutritious salad dressing ingredients and tips, it’s time to start making tasty, healthy dressings at home.

The easiest way? Choose a green-flag ingredient from each category—a fat, acid, emulsifier, and flavoring agent. Combine them in a bowl and whisk together vigorously. Or, my personal favorite technique: Shake all the ingredients together in a mason jar (great for preparation and storage in one).

Some delicious flavor combinations to try at home include a simple vinaigrette (oil and vinegar) lemon basil, miso ginger, avocado lime, maple mustard, tahini garlic, and yogurt cucumber (a.k.a. tzatziki).

Homemade Salad Dressing Recipes:

How to Buy Healthier Store-Bought Salad Dressing

“Making your own salad dressing can be really easy, but don't feel like you have to make one from scratch to choose a healthy option, “ Carli explains. Often it’s just easier to grab a ready-made option at the supermarket. When shopping at the grocery store for healthy dressing, the best plan of action is to keep a watchful eye out for any ingredients that fall into the red-flag categories.

While scouring the ingredients list on a salad dressing bottle, check for simple, easily recognizable foods like olive oil, vinegar, herbs, and spices. Then, double-check for your ingredient review by looking at the nutrition facts panel for sodium, added sugar, saturated fat, and trans fat content. Ideally, you’ll see less than 200 mg of sodium, 5 grams of sugar, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 0 grams of trans fat per serving.

“My favorite store bought salad dressing brands are Primal Kitchen, Brianna's, Chosen Foods, Girard's, and Bolthouse Farms,” Carli recommends.

The Bottom Line?

After all is said and done, produce-forward salads are healthy—full stop. It’s not necessary to overthink and micromanage your every dressing choice, so don't let that deter you from eating salads altogether!

However, if you’re curious about how to make and buy the absolutely healthiest salad dressings, and what makes those choices the best for you, keep in mind that real, fresh, simple ingredients and combinations are key. At the most basic level, choose a healthy, unsaturated fat source (olive oil or avocado oil, for instance!) and a natural, uncomplicated acid source (like citrus juice or vinegar!), and then build from there with flavors low in sodium and added sugars.

“By paying attention to these factors, you can select a dressing that not only tastes great but also supports your health,” Carli says.

Related: 25 Healthy Salad Recipes That Will Revolutionize Your Lunch Game

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