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What Are Those Processed Ingredients in Your Salad Dressing?

Rochelle spends as much time in the kitchen as she does at a keyboard. It's no surprise that cooking and food are favorite article subjects.

Have you ever really looked at the ingredients on your store-bought salad dressing?

Have you ever really looked at the ingredients on your store-bought salad dressing?

Additives in Processed Dressing

With so many choices of commercially-made salad dressings, are there any good reasons to make your own? Yes, there are! Homemade dressings are easy to make, better for your health, and often cost less than brand-name products.

When you read the label of any processed food, you will find a lot of mysterious ingredients. Bottled salad dressings are usually loaded with chemical and artificial additives, which are generally considered safe in small quantities but may promote bad nutrition.

Processed food is often formulated with substandard cheap ingredients in the interest of making a profit. Commercial salad dressings usually have too much fat, low-quality oil, too much sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and too much salt/sodium, along with many unpronounceable or even harmful chemicals.

Are Additives Safe?

Government agencies have decided that adding several substances to processed edible products is just fine. Many are things that we wouldn't normally recognize as food.

There are more than 1,400 different approved food additives listed in Codex Alimentarius ("food book") of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the World Health Organization, whose main purpose is "to protect the health of consumers."

The list includes additives to color food to stabilize color or retain color, as well as others to keep food from caking, foaming, or doing something else that it might really want to do in its natural state. Other additions may emulsify, liquefy or firm a product, or cause a mixture to gel or glaze.

There are also additives to keep food moist, additives to keep food dry, and at least one to fight foaming—which is something that apparently needs to be fought.

There are a large number of preservatives and antioxidants as well as propellants, seasonings, sequestrants(?), stabilizers, sweeteners, acidifiers, thickeners, and thinners. There are over 30 kinds of approved flavor enhancers alone.

It seems like most commercially made salad dressings have more than their fair share of additives. Bottled dressings are often very high in calories and also may have excessive sugar and salt, which can pose a health risk to many people.

Why should salad dressing need "flavor enhancers" when olive oil and vinegar have so much natural flavor? To get all the flavor you need, you can use a smaller quantity of natural ingredients compared to the amount of brand-name dressing poured from a bottle.

The health benefits of olive oil can truly enhance your salad. Some people who prefer a creamy dressing can be converted to oil and vinegar by adding a sprinkle of bleu, feta, or asiago cheese. All of these are natural and lower in fat than "creamy" dressings.

Fresh ingredients have lots of flavor.

Fresh ingredients have lots of flavor.

Oils Are Basic

Processed dressing might include soybean, palm, or other oil, which is partially hydrogenated and steam distilled to remove the odor. (It would smell like rancid butter without the last step.)

Trans fats are considered to be more harmful to health than even natural saturated fats. Now that people are becoming more aware of trans fats, some products are using different names like mono-diglycerides, which is really just another hydrogenated oil product with a new name.

Some dressings use cottonseed oil. Since cotton is not normally a food product, the plants may have been treated with pesticides and chemicals which are not meant to be used on produce.

So why are these substandard oils used?

Simple. They are cheaper, even when "enhanced" with a half-dozen additives.

How to Find Homemade Salad Dressing Recipes

There are a few very easy, basic recipes in this article, but, of course, they are endlessly variable by just making simple changes. There are thousands of easy recipes online.

  • When searching for recipes online, you may want to Google a specific ingredient (or lack of ingredient) along with "salad dressing" or "salad dressing recipe."
  • As appropriate for you, add the word tofu, avocado, bleu cheese, low fat/non-fat, low sodium, or diabetic to your search.
  • You can search for a specific cuisine, e.g., Asian, Mexican, French, or Italian.
  • Search for a particular type of dressing, e.g., Thousand Island, Ranch, etc.
  • Avoid recipes that include ingredients like mayonnaise, catsup, or chili sauce, which often contain additives.
  • If you have a bottled dressing that you like, look at the ingredients list. Use the "real" ingredients to make your own version.
  • Swap out the artificial sweeteners with honey or sugar, use quality oil, and cut down on sodium, and you may find that you have something even better than the original processed version.

When you make your own, you may be surprised that you use less total dressing than you used the commercial variety. Without fillers and gums, the flavors are fresher and more intense. The oils and other ingredients you buy for a recipe may seem much more expensive, but you will use less, and it will be better for you

Yes, some oils, like extra virgin cold press olive oil, can be quite pricey, but you don't need to use much. A large salad might only need a tablespoon or two, and you don't really need to buy the most expensive kind.

"Standard" olive oil is fine. Apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar (both a little less "sharp" than white vinegar) is not expensive.

Who needs bottled dressing?

Who needs bottled dressing?

Common Dressing Additives

What kind of additives are used in commercially prepared dressings? The list is long, but let's look at a few common ones.

  • Propylene glycol alginate is often used as a thickener and stabilizer in salad dressing. Originally derived from brown algae and mixed with a few other things, it is on the government's GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list but little long-term testing has been done. It may inhibit the absorption of nutrients.
  • Xanthan Gum: Despite its rather alien-sounding name, xanthan gum is as natural as any other fermented corn sugar polysaccharide you can think of. It derives its name from a strain of bacteria used during the fermentation process—Xanthomonas campestris—the same bacteria responsible for causing black rot on broccoli, cauliflower, and leafy vegetables. The bacteria form a slimy substance that acts as a natural stabilizer or thickener. When combined with corn sugar, the digestion process results in a colorless goo with properties similar to cornstarch. It is used in dressings to increase viscosity and create a quality known as pseudoelasticity. This means that when a product containing Xanthan gum is mixed or shaken, it will thin out, but once the kinetic forces are removed, the mixture will thicken back up.

It makes salad dressing thick enough at rest in the bottle to keep the mixture fairly homogeneous, but shaking thins it so it can be easily poured. When it rests on the salad, it thickens again, so it clings to the ingredients.

Despite the use of bacteria during processing, xanthan gum itself is not generally considered harmful to human skin or digestive systems.

  • Potassium sorbate is used to inhibit molds, microbes, and yeasts in many foods and to increase shelf life. It is used in quantities at which there are no known adverse health effects.
  • Sodium benzoate is a preservative to inhibit bacteria and fungi under acidic conditions. It is used in acidic foods such as salad dressings, carbonated drinks, jams, and fruit juices. It provides a "tangy" taste.

It is also found in alcohol-based mouthwash and silver polish, as well as in fireworks as a fuel in "whistle mix," a powder that imparts a whistling noise when compressed into a tube and ignited.

Research published in 2007 by the UK's Food Standards Agency suggests that sodium benzoate with certain mixtures of artificial food colors is linked to hyperactive behavior and decreased intelligence in children. More study is pending.

  • Food-grade phosphoric acid is a mass-produced chemical that is cheap and available in large quantities, unlike more expensive natural seasonings that have similar flavors.

It is used in place of ginger for tanginess or instead of citric acid from lemons and lines for sourness. Most citric acid in the food industry is not extracted from citrus fruit but fermented by Aspergillus niger mold from scrap molasses.

Phosphoric acid in larger quantities can cause severe medical problems through inhalation of mist, ingestion, and contact with skin and eyes. It is also linked to lower bone density. A study done between 1996 and 2001 published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition supports the theory. The study also suggests that further research is needed to confirm the findings.

Phosphoric acid is used as a rust remover or "rust killer" on iron or steel. It is the main ingredient in a gel, commonly called naval jelly, which must be used with care to avoid acid burns on the skin and eyes. It is also used in dentistry and orthodontics as an etching solution to clean and roughen the surfaces of teeth where dental appliances or fillings will be placed.

  • EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) goes by many other names just to confuse the issue. It is added as a preservative to packaged foods, baby foods, and vitamins to prevent catalytic oxidation by metal ions. It is also used in industrial cleaning, to reduce water hardness, and for uses in the paper, fertilizer, and textile industries.

There are various other uses, such as the recovery of lead from used batteries. In medicine, it is used in chelation therapy for mercury and lead poisoning and as an anticoagulant for blood samples.

Yes, there are some benefits to the use of certain food additives. Preservatives and antioxidants have made it possible to have a better worldwide food distribution system, even supplying emergency food to areas where it is needed. These additives have allowed people to preserve and store food for the future.

On the other hand, certain enhancements, like artificial coloring, seem to be unnecessary and may actually be causing some health problems. The bottom line is that even though all of these additives have supposedly been tested and approved by government agencies, do you really want them in your food?

They may all be "safe" in the quantities used, but why are we paying a high price for a lot of unknown fabricated chemicals used to enhance and preserve substandard and suspect ingredients?

So if you are thinking of making your meals more healthful, give a thought to what you are using to season and dress those good ingredients. Don't sabotage your salad with a questionable mixture of artificial additives. Add nutrients, flavor, and health benefits with a naturally good dressing.

11 Homemade Salad Dressing Recipes

There is usually some kind of oil plus vinegar or lemon juice. Various herbs and seasonings can be added, and sometimes sugar or honey. The most basic salad dressing is oil and vinegar. Pick an oil, pick a vinegar, and pour some of each on your salad. Whether you choose olive oil and cider vinegar or roasted hazelnut oil with balsamic vinegar, you probably will be pleasantly surprised with the simple result.

Easy Basic Vinaigrette

  • 2 Tbsp. vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. dijon mustard
  • Pinch salt
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the ingredients and whisk until creamy.

Citrus Cumin Dressing

Low calorie with fresh fruit flavors. Great on spinach, bean, or grain salads and whole meal salads with grilled chicken and fresh fruits.

  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 3 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 3/4 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp. salt, fresh ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender; blend until smooth. Makes about 1 cup.

Orange and Poppy Seed

  • Juice of 2 large oranges
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp. poppy seeds and seasoning to taste.

Mediterranean Dressing

  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato puree
  • Seasoning to taste
  • 2 finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes

Combine the first four ingredients and whisk. Then stir in the chopped sun-dried tomatoes.

Classic Balsamic Dressing

  • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place all the dressing ingredients together in a dressing bottle or jam jar. Add seasoning to taste. Shake well until the oil and vinegar have blended together. (Can be stored in the refrigerator and kept for up to 1 week.)

Dressing for Cooked Veggies

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/4 tsp. paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed

Mix all ingredients. Let it stand for several hours. Shake well. Especially good over hot vegetables (e.g., broccoli, asparagus, or green beans).

Sweet Spicy Dressing

The honey tones down the heat of the horseradish. Lots of flavor. Low sodium.

  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1/3 cup vinegar
  • 1 tsp. horseradish

Creamy Dill Dressing

  • 8 oz. plain fat-free yogurt
  • 3 Tbsp. oil
  • 2 Tbsp. dried chives
  • 2 Tbsp. dried dill
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice

Mix ingredients in a bowl. Refrigerate.

Garlic Dressing

  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. basil
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Honey Mustard

  • Whole-grain mustard
  • Virgin olive oil
  • Honey

Mix equal measures of each ingredient together. Check for taste and add more of whichever you feel is needed.

Tomato Garlic Dressing

  • 1/2 cup tomato or mixed vegetable juice
  • 2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. Italian seasonings
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped (or 1/4 tsp. garlic powder)
  • 3 oz. low-fat tofu (optional, but it adds a creamy consistency as well as a fat-free protein)

Combine ingredients and mix until well blended.

Additional Tips

  • Fresh herbs add concentrated phytonutrients and antioxidants to salads. Just a dash or a pinch of these flavor powerhouses can give you a nutritional boost.
  • Try sage, rosemary, marjoram, parsley, and thyme. A dressing with lots of herbs, which have almost no calories, offers health-protective benefits as well as great taste.
  • Apple cider vinegar has a tasty tang—but there are a number of flavored vinegar that can also add interest. Try blood orange vinegar, for example, or raspberry vinegar.
  • For extra flavor, add garlic, tarragon, mint, basil, green onions, or miso to your dressing, depending on the type of salad.
  • Ranch, cheesy or creamy types of dressings often are the worst as far as artificial ingredients are concerned. Often, people who like these types can be "converted" to a mild vinaigrette with the addition of a little crumbled feta or real bleu cheese.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil is great, but some others, like grapeseed oil, are also very healthful. High-quality oils are more expensive than the ones used in the bottled dressing, but in the long run, you will get more servings per dollar out of homemade vinaigrette than the questionable concoctions in a bottle. You will probably find that you like the flavor better too, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have improved your nutrition. You can adjust the taste to your own palette.
  • Don't drench your salads. The ladle for dressings at salad bars often holds four tablespoons! Richly flavored dressings with real ingredients need only be lightly drizzled over salads. Expensive processed salad dressings provide the least nutrition per dollar.
  • If it comes in fancy packaging, is heavily advertised, and is promoted by coupons, you are probably paying too much. All of those things cost money—and the marketers are still making a profit, perhaps at the expense of your health.