Spring is prime time for salads, especially when you’re growing organic greens in your own backyard garden—doesn’t get much more natural than that! But once you bring a store-bought bottle of salad dressing into the equation, everything changes. “Salad dressings can be a minefield for consumers looking for something healthy to top off their salad,” says author and former food-industry exec Bruce Bradley. “Unfortunately, processed-food companies have to use their whole arsenal of fats, salts, sugars, fake flavors, and colors to make store-bought salad dressings have appeal.”
1. It's loaded with untested Franken-ingredients.
Eyeball any salad-dressing label, and oil is one of the top ingredients. Unfortunately, the bulk of oils used in nonorganic salad dressings today come from genetically engineered soy or canola, crops that have never been tested for their impact on human health. These crops are grown using massive amounts of pesticides, which can wind up inside of the food, too.
Try this instead: Opt for organic when you’'re buying dressing at the supermarket. When making your own dressing mix, reach for heart-healthy organic extra-virgin olive oil. Its fat profile is more favorable than other common salad oils. To find high-quality organic extra-virgin olive oil, look for one packaged in a dark bottle and that lists a “best by” date or date of harvest. As a general rule, opt for oils harvested in the current year and a “best by” date that is at least 2 years away.
Read More: This Could Be the End of Healthy Food
2. Popular brands use an ingredient that’s making you dumb.
Scientists recently discovered that ingesting high-fructose corn syrup for just 6 weeks made lab animals less smart. While you’d expect this processed, brain-draining sweetener in candy, you might be surprised to find it in many salad dressings sold under many popular and higher-end brands, like Girard's Blue Cheese.
Try this instead: The organic label ensures there’s no high-fructose corn syrup in your dressing, so go that route whenever possible. Beware of dressing with too much regular sugar, too. Bradley says many fruit-based dressings, like raspberry vinaigrette, sometimes harbor a deceiving amount of sweeteners.
3. It might contain paint chemicals.
Titanium dioxide, a go-to substance in the paint industry to make colors brighter, is also a common ingredient in salad dressings for the same reason—it makes the ingredients (some of them fake) seem fresher. Titanium dioxide is sometimes contaminated with lead, something you definitely don't want on your plate.
Try this instead: Bradley says titanium dioxide is sometimes listed as itself on the label but sometimes falls under vague “colors added” terms. Be wary of dressings listing these ingredients and consider whipping up your own version, free of funky ingredients.
Read More: The Best Caesar Salad in the World
4. It’s full of questionable colors.
Hidden Valley Farmhouse Originals sounds natural enough, but some of the color in the company's Pomegranate Vinaigrette comes not from real fruit but from Red #40, an artificial food dye linked to ADHD in children. Kraft’s Creamy Ranch contains Yellow #5, a fake food dye that causes allergic reactions in certain people and could harbor cancer-causing substances like benzidine.
Be wary of caramel colors, too. "Many salad dressing flavors like honey mustard, Caesar, or creamy balsamic rely on caramel coloring to give them their rich brown or golden hue," Bradley explains, noting that some caramel colors have been linked to cancer.
Try this instead: Chelten House Organic Honey Mustard or this easy, do-it-yourself recipe
5. It could contain deadly hidden fats.
Trans fats are dangerous industrialized fats that your taste buds love but your body hates, thanks to the ingredient’s tendency to promote heart disease. Used to help extend a product’s shelf life, trans fats are required to be labeled, but there’s a loophole, and food manufacturers are capitalizing on it.
Try this instead: Since products containing less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving aren’t required to disclose this on the label, look for other warning signs, such as ingredients listing “partially hydrogenated,” “shortening,” or “interesterified.” To reduce the time it takes to read the fine print, just grab an organic dressing, like Annie’s Naturals Organic Buttermilk dressing, where trans fats and many other toxic ingredients are banned.
Read More: Expert IDs Supermarket Tricks That Are Making You Fat
Photo: (cc) Raisa H/Flickr
6. Companies save money by tricking your taste buds.
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is an amino acid that helps intensify the flavor of foods. By adding it to things like soups and salad dressings, companies are able to reduce the amount of real ingredients in their foods, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The problem is, animal studies link the food additive to nerve-cell damage in the brain, and many humans report MSG-induced migraines.
Try this instead: Avoid products listing MSG or monosodium glutamate; other ingredients like natural flavoring and hydrolyzed vegetable protein could also contain glutamate, according to CSPI.
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