Healthy Low-Carb Salad Dressings

Cutting Hidden Sugar and Choosing Those With Healthier Oil

Dressing being poured on salad, close-up
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A tasty salad dressing can really be a positive addition to a salad. It not only adds flavor; the oil can actually make some of the nutrients in the salad, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals, more accessible to your body.

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.

Serving Size

Salad dressing is one of those foods where you tend not to notice how much you're putting on, and thus a "rounding error" can enter in. For example, 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per serving is reported as 1 gram, which makes two servings 3 grams of carb. Also, if you're watching calories, they can add up fast.

One tip for keeping serving size reasonable is 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 Sugars

It's quite surprising how much sugar and other carbohydrates are added to salad dressings, so it pays to look at the label under "Total Carbohydrate" and also at the ingredient list. Occasionally there might be a gram of fiber you can subtract from the total carbohydrate figure to get net carbs, 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. The first place prize for the most sugar in a salad dressing goes to Brianna's Blush Wine Vinaigrette, at 14 grams of carbohydrate for a two tablespoon serving.

Try to find dressings that have zero or 1 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 Oils

The 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, people tend to get too much in their diets. Of the easy-to-find and reasonably-priced oils, olive oil is probably the best choice, at 73 percent monounsaturated fat and 9 percent omega-6. It also has other good-for-you nutrients. Canola oil has 59 percent monounsaturated fat and 20 percent omega-6. Soybean oil, the least expensive and most commonly-used oil, is 23 percent monounsaturated fat and 51 percent 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 looking at labels, a few were called something like "Olive Oil and Vinegar" but the second ingredient on the list, after olive oil, 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 Chunky Blue Cheese Dressing.

Other Ingredients

Some 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 vegetable gums and other ingredients to add "body" back into the dressing. You may 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:

  • Oil
  • 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)

The ratio of oil to vinegar should be about 3 to 1. Shake it all together in a jar or whisk in a bowl. That's all there is to it.

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.

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