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Beware the Bottled Dressing: Why store-bought dressings can sabotage your salad

Emily Tamberino

You’re feeling really good about yourself—you’ve got a colorful, and therefore nutritious, salad mix of leafy greens; vibrant carrots, peppers and tomatoes; nuts for protein; avocado for healthy fat; and you even scrounge up some blueberries for an antioxidant power punch. But then you blow it. That top layer of creamy, store-bought ranch dressing seems innocent, but it just hijacked your otherwise healthy meal. 

So, if ranch dressing isn’t a good choice, how about Thousand Island, Bleu Cheese, French or Caesar? What if the label boasts “light” or “reduced-fat” dressing? What if it’s organic? 

The sad truth is that, while they’re convenient, bottled dressings are typically high in sodium, sugar, saturated fat and calories–even the organic ones. 

Annegret Kessler is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes care and education specialist at Colorado Mountain Medical. She says the rule of thumb is to stay below 130-150 mg of sodium per serving and that “zero is even better.” However, your standard brand of Thousand Island dressing packs 289 mg of sodium in each serving. Many dressings also use preservatives like Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). These flavor enhancers, along with a thickening agent called Xanthum gum, can cause allergic reactions in some people, including headaches, nausea, bloating and diarrhea. Many dressings contain phosphoric acid to maintain freshness, which is linked to lower bone density.

A small amount of high quality bottled dressing may be harmless, but most people use much more than a standard serving to dress up their salad, potentially undoing the benefits of making that healthy choice to begin with. And, when shopping, most consumers don’t spend enough time reading the labels on their foods, or they don’t even recognize the ingredients. 

“You don’t want to sabotage a salad for a low-quality dressing,” said Kessler. “It kind of negates the whole purpose of eating healthy.”

Now, even vegetarians and vegans start feeling a little like a bunny rabbit after nibbling their way through a plate full of raw veggies without a little something for extra flavor. The healthiest option to spice up your salad? Kessler and other experts agree, oils and vinaigrettes are the way to go. Even more specifically, they say to reach for extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic, apple cider or red wine vinegar. 

“Vinegar and oil should be a staple in your cupboard if you’re trying to eat healthy,” said Kessler. 

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) provides an astounding variety of health benefits. It is rich in powerful antioxidants, which help fight inflammation and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and even obesity. EVOO includes hydroxytyrosol, a super ingredient that can improve skin health by preventing the signs of aging, helping heal abrasions and delaying and reducing skin cancers caused by UV rays. An American Academy of Neurology study found that those who regularly used olive oil for both cooking and as dressing had a 41 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who never used olive oil in their diet. In addition, a Purdue University research study suggested sprinkling your salad or cooked vegetables with olive oil might improve the absorption of vitamins and minerals, so if you want to get the most nutrients out of your veggies, you should pair them with extra virgin olive oil. 

“Fat is required to absorb fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K,” said Kessler. “These vitamins are more bioavail­able, or more eas­ily absorbed by the body, when monounsaturated fat from olive oil is present.”

Good extra-virgin olive oil has a buttery flavor, and sometimes needs nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and a dash of pepper. Infused olive oils pack an even tastier punch, with spices like garlic, basil, rosemary and truffle, which pair nicely with cooked vegetables. Flavors like blood-orange and lemon are delicious on a salad. It’s important to be sure you’re buying 100% extra virgin olive oil, though, as impure olive oils can contain a blend of lower quality vegetable oils like soybean, sunflower and palm oil, and won’t deliver the same benefits of true olive oil.

Vinegars can add a bright and tart taste to your dish, and they are extremely low in calories. One tablespoon of balsamic vinegar only has 14 calories. Apple cider vinegar (ACV), which only contains three calories per tablespoon, is a popular home remedy for everything from acne to weight loss and even ear infections. Acetic acid, the main active ingredient in ACV, can kill harmful bacteria, so consuming 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar mixed with water each day could promote gut health.

“Anytime you can incorporate vinegars, you’ll get the benefit of probiotics, which provide an environment to produce healthy gut bacteria,” said Kessler.  

If you’re missing the taste of a creamy dressing, think about making your own and consider healthy swaps like Greek yogurt in place of mayonnaise or heavy cream. 

Dietitian nutritionists like Kessler refer to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which calls for 2-3 cups of vegetables every day. You can achieve that goal by eating 2-3 cups of cooked broccoli, for instance, or you can get the nutritional benefits of a variety of vegetables by eating 2-3 cups of salad each day. 

“Consuming a large salad each day can help you cover a lot of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for vitamins and minerals,” said Kessler. “In addition, you can get phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory agents, which go beyond the RDA.”

Salads are nutritious, and they can be delicious even without the globs of creamy bottled dressings. Reach for extra virgin olive oil and your choice of vinegar to maximize the benefits of the foods in your next salad bowl. 

The Remedy Salad Dressing
Recipe from

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup + 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp pink salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 cloves fresh pressed or grated garlic

  • Olive oil: Improves heart health and brain function, relieves inflammation and improves digestion.
  • Apple cider vinegar: Helps prevent flu and stomach illness, promotes good gut bacteria.
  • Lemon: Boosts the immune system, balances PH, helps fight infection and helps aid in digestion.
  • Garlic: Natural antibiotic, helps ward off coughs and colds, anti-fungal and helps fight against allergies and cancer.
  • Pink salt: Contains around 80 minerals, helps your body absorb nutrients, supports respiratory function and promotes healthy sleep.
  • Black pepper: Natural antibiotic properties, helps treat respiratory disorders, helps improve digestion and helps break up chest congestion.