What is a Healthy Salad Dressing?

Still think of salad as a small bowl of lettuce, a wedge of tomato, and a few slices of cucumber? News flash: Salads have moved beyond those sad little side dishes.

Today, great salad recipes come with an endless variety of greens, veggies, fruit, nuts, beans, and more. With some extra protein, they can even take center stage, replacing your carb-heavy, veggie-poor sandwich or pasta as a main course.

So what is a healthy salad dressing, then? If you haven’t moved beyond Wish-Bone Italian, it’s time for a change. Here’s a guide to the best dressings in a bottle.

1. Slash the salt.

It’s not clear why some companies dump so much salt into their dressings. Most major brands hover around 300 milligrams of sodium in a two-tablespoon serving.

Some are worse. Ken’s Steak House Zesty Italian and Lite Caesar hit 550 mg (a third of a day’s worth), proving that, at least for some of his dressings, Ken’s Stroke House is more like it. Olive Garden’s bottled Signature Italian (520 mg) isn’t far behind.

You can do better:

Two tablespoons of most of Panera’s 12 bottled dressings have no more than 150 mg of sodium…and they taste great. Ditto for all Wild Thymes, about half of Tessemae’s and Cindy’s Kitchen, and half a dozen or so Annie’s and Marie’s.

2. Consider calories.

What is a healthy salad dressing without a few calories? Thankfully, salad dressings get most of their calories from heart-healthy unsaturated oils. What’s more, you’re using the dressing to coat low-calorie veggies.

That said, it’s easy to overdo dressings if, like most people, you don’t measure before you pour. With 50 to 100 calories in each tablespoon of most full-fat dressings, you can hit 150 to 400 calories if you (oops!) drop three or four tablespoons on your salad. (That’s how much restaurants like Au Bon Pain, Così, and Panera serve with their entrée-size salads.)

Trying to cut calories? You don’t have to settle for off flavors.

Bolthouse Farms, for example, has a line of dressings that replace oil with yogurt and taste surprisingly good for having no more than 45 calories. Annie’s Fat Free and Lite and Vino de Milo also have great flavor for dressings that rarely top 60 calories.

Other tips to cut calories:

  • Toss, toss, toss. A teaspoon or two of dressing should coat each cup of salad if you toss enough. It’s easier to do that if you use a large bowl.
  • Make your own. Try one of our easy, healthy salad dressing recipes. A two-tablespoon serving of any of them has less than 100 calories. Too much trouble to make fresh dressing before you serve? Prepare a week’s worth ahead of time.

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3. Don’t sweat the saturated fat.

Dressings are largely made of unsaturated oils (typically canola or soybean), which lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Some (think blue cheese) add some cheese and/or sour cream. That can tack on an extra gram or so of sat fat, we estimate. But it’s still outweighed by the unsaturated oils.

Don’t get snookered by these claims:

Omega-3s. Many Marzetti Simply Dressed dressings brag about their “omega-3 ALA.” And many from Litehouse tout their “Canola Oil with Omega 3.” So what? You’d get about the same amount of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) in any dressing made with canola or soybean oil.

In contrast, Cindy’s Kitchen Roasted Yellow Bell and Serrano Pepper has 160 mg of omega-3s from fish oil. That’s not a huge dose—you’d get that much in about three teaspoons of salmon—but it’s more than the 10 mg in Ken’s Light Options dressings.

Olive oil. Most dressings that make olive oil claims add just a smidgen. Exception: Tessemae’s uses only olive oil (and doesn’t make a fuss about it on the label).

Vitamins. “Naturally Helps Better Absorb Vitamins A & E from salad with the oils in Wish-Bone,” says Wish-Bone Italian’s bottle. Any oil—or any fat in your salad or meal—can help absorb those vitamins.There’s nothing special about Wish-Bone.

4. Keep a lid on sugar.

Labels don’t distinguish between added sugars and the naturally occurring sugars in any fruit ingredients. But look out for dressings that list sugar as the first ingredient.

As a rule, you’re more likely to find added sugars in a French, fruit, honey mustard, poppyseed, or sweet onion dressing than in a blue cheese, Caesar, Italian, ranch, or savory vinaigrette.

Luckily, most dressings that add sugar have no more than about a teaspoon.

Just watch out for tricky claims:

For example, Briannas Blush Wine Vinaigrette boasts that it contains “No HFCS,” but the dressing is roughly half sugar. Marzetti Simply Dressed bottles make a similar claim, but the company just substitutes sugar for high-fructose corn syrup. To your body, HFCS and sugar are essentially the same.

5. Give small brands a whirl.

If you don’t mind paying a few extra bucks and having to head to a store like Whole Foods to find them, some smaller brands deliver amazing taste for less salt…and no food dyes or artificial flavors:

Cindy’s Kitchen. Ingredients like extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable and fruit purées or juices, fresh herbs, roasted tomatillos, avocado, and chipotle, jalapeño, and ancho peppers don’t come cheap. But they add up to the best-tasting dressings we tried. Impressive!

Tessemae’s. They cut the emulsifiers, so the oils separate, like a homemade vinaigrette might. And the olive oil solidifies in the refrigerator case, just like it will in your fridge. Don’t be put off by either.They’ll look fine…and taste great…at room temperature. Caution: Tessemae’s labels use a one-tablespoon serving, so you have to double all the Nutrition Facts.

Wild Thymes. None top 70 calories or 60 mg of sodium. (Exception: the Asian Toasted Sesame Vinaigrette has 120 mg.) If you’re looking for a fruity dressing, start here.

What is a healthy salad dressing to you? Do you make your own, or use one of these brands above?

NutritionAction.com doesn’t accept any paid advertising or corporate or government funding. Any products recommended by NutritionAction.com have been vetted by our staff of nutritionists and are not advertisements by the manufacturers.

4 Replies to “What is a Healthy Salad Dressing?”

  1. we use balsamic vinegar, olive oil, & a little water. It is the only one that is consistently good and we have every day.

    1. John, except for water, do you use equal parts of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or should I just experiment? I’m looking for the simplest dressing for use every time.

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