Dressed To Kill

I was in the Chicago airport and needed to refuel. My options were: shiny noodles at the Chinese buffet, too-thick-crusted pizza, fat burritos twice the height of a normal mouth and battered fish from a restaurant where the hostess stood behind a wooden ship’s bow.

I chose McDonald’s salad. But wished I’d chosen the fish.

It wasn’t even the translucent tomatoes and rubbery chicken that said “airport”, it was the dressing. I tore off the corner with my teeth, drizzled, mixed, chewed and thought: must remember to pack my own salad dressing in a 3 oz container.

There is nothing that kills the delicate flavors of a salad or says, “I was born in a factory!” quite like xanthan gum. And while some of the ingredients (like xanthan gum) are relatively innocent, others might be doing more than just killing flavor.

Listed in order (albeit a somewhat subjective order) of most benign to most disturbing, here are some of the common ingredients in salad dressings. And don’t think just because yours says “natural” or has a woman’s name as the brand name, that it’s clean. Turn the bottle around and have a read  – it’s a rare brand that does not welcome at least one of these into the mix.

Water: Often the first ingredient and always the first in “diet” dressings. The water itself is benign but unlike oil which absorbs the flavors of other ingredients, water does not. As such, “flavor” is often added (which is not natural but made in a lab, even when it says “natural flavor”.)

Canola Oil and/or Soybean Oil: These are both cheaper and less flavorful than olive oil and are usually the dominant ones in commercial dressings. If the label says, “Made with Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, it means that EVOO is in the dressing, but is not the primary oil.

Xanthan Gum or Food Starch: Added as thickener which lends a gummy taste and texture. Shake or whisk your own dressing vigorously and it will thicken – naturally.

MSG: Flavor enhancer that though believed to be safe for most people, is so powerful at enhancing flavors, that it makes everything it touches taste fake.

Fat-free: Not an ingredient but a “claim” on the label that should serve as a warning sign to avoid it. High quality fats (like olive oil) enhance the taste of the salad, so you’ll eat more of your vegetables!  Moreover, fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A, found in spinach and carrots, need fat molecules to be absorbed. No fat, no absorption of Vitamin A. Fat-free dressings usually contain more sugar, more thickeners and more flavorings.

Polysorbate 60: An emulsifier that keeps the ingredients together.  Shaking homemade dressing also keeps the ingredients together.

Potasium Sorbate: A preservative. Homemade dressing will keep for months in your cold fridge but will not keep for months in a warm warehouse.

Natural & Artificial Favors: If “flavors” of any kind are listed, run.  It means that the taste you’re tasting, is  coming from these lab crated flavors and not from the “pure” ingredients.

Artificial Sweeteners: Common in “low calorie” and “sugar free” dressings. Avoid!  If you want a lower calorie dressing, use a lower quantity of dressing.

EDTA*: It’s a chemical that neutralizes bits of metal that are in the dressing from the factory’s pipes and machines used in its production.  (It is added so the metal does not deteriorate the ingredients as they spend their long shelf-lives together.) What?! Is it not alarming that we are adding chemicals to; a) destroy another chemical and b) ensure that our dressing has a long, healthy life?!

Caramel Color: We encounter it so often that we don’t even notice it.  Colas have it, so does cheap maple syrup, steak sauce, many balsamic vinegars, brownish colored salad dressings, many breads and packaged baked goods and almost all brown liquids sold on a shelf. Problem is – it’s toxic. It contains a contaminant 4-methylimidazole that is known to cause cancer. California has officially listed it as a toxic ingredient (as of January 2011), and there is a proposal to ban it or require labels to state that it is known to be toxic.**  Small quantities are not going to harm you, problem is we (meaning anyone who consumes brown colored packaged or bottled foods) consume it with such frequency that even small quantities, over many years, turn into large quantities.

So what’s the solution? Make it. If you’ve ever whisked an egg, stirred milk into coffee or shaken a cocktail, you can make dressing. It’s all about the mixing and all about the simple ingredients.

Here are my top three. Master these (which can be done in under 5 minutes) and you will never have an excuse to buy bottled again.

1) Buttermilk & Dill (Photo and ingredients)

2) Balsamic & Mustard Photo and ingredients)

3) Miso & Ginger: (Photo and ingredients)

Thoughts? Concerns? Store-bought-salad-dressing defenders?  Your fave homemade dressings?

Related Posts:
But It’s Naturally Made In The Lab! (Why “natural flavor” is an oxymoron.)
What’s Leaching Into Your Food From Cast Iron?


*Wikipedia entry for EDTA
**A summary of the caramel coloring issue.
**California lists
4-methylimidazole as a toxic chemical.

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  • dawn

    Favorite homemade dressing by far is blue cheese… can be costly getting the good gorgonzola but definitely worth the effort. also like lemon thyme vinaigerette because of its versatility and because it uses lemon juice in place of vinegar… It just tastes crisp.

    • Michelle

      Give us your blue cheese dressing!

      • dawn

        well its not exactly my recipe… i got the guideline from this post…http://lipstickblogspot.blogspot.com/2010/03/blue-cheese.html but i add more lemon juice and less red wine vinegar…. very good!!!!

        • http://katzinn.com meezermom

          I really miss a good blue cheese dressing. I’ve tried the bottle stuff – do people really buy that stuff more than once?
          Thanks for passing this on!

        • http://www.suzyeats.com Suzy Eats

          Thanks. Adding more lemon juice also makes it a little healthier as there is even some evidence to suggest lemons can help with weight loss. -www.suzyeats.com

  • Jacquelyn Hoag

    I guess I started making salad dressing when I was 8 and mixed mayo and catsup together for topping a wedge of iceberg lettuce. We have come a long way since the 50’s! That was very very long ago! I can’t say I have ever tasted ANY commercial salad dressing that could match homemade. In fact, most of it is awful. And, an awful rip off! But, can’t say that I ever bought any myself. What is easier than drizzling olive oil and balsamic over a bed of baby greens? I add dried blueberries and feta cheese and have lived on that all winter.
    As for all the other possibilities……..a basic vineagriette, a sweetened one with poppy seeds for spinach salad with strawberries, and my favorite…..that is a mixture of olive oil, garlic cloves, tamari and lemon juice. We drive out to the coast and buy whole crabs….and sit with a cold beer, a chunk of baguette, bowl of salad with crab, drizzled on it, mopped up with bread.

    • Michelle

      I whole-heartedly agree that the best way to make a dressing is to toss a bunch of things in, taste, add more of this or that and you’re done. The measurements I give are purely directional!

    • ctb

      FWIW, I’ve noticed that homemade dressings tend to get a rather stale-tasting if stored for too long – esp. if they contain raw ingredients like fresh herbs.

      • Michelle

        That would make sense, and yes, thanks for pointing it out – for optimal taste best to use homemade within a couple weeks, but I would STILL take a slightly less fragrant oregano leaf over an impeccibly “preserved” bottle of ranch dressing!

  • Carter

    Just looked through my “healthy” dressings and, indeed, every one had at least one of your bad ingredients. What a drag! Then looked at several “brown” liquids in bottles and there was that dreaded caramel color crap (though liquid smoke labeled it as color caramel…sneaky!) However, my balsamic is PURE! Thanks for the list of food additive crud.

    • Michelle

      “Bad” is always relative and you have to pick and choose, but when it comes to something like salad dressing that is SO simple to make at home, and SO simple to always have on hand, it makes no sense NOT to!

  • Diane

    My favorite homemade dressing is olive oil plus Marukan Seasoned Gourmet Rice Vinegar. It’s very light & refreshing and no premixing needed.

    • Michelle

      What kind of flavor does Marukan add to the rice vinegar? Is it widely available?

    • http://www.suzyeats.com Suzy Eats

      This sounds great Diane. I am going to try it. -www.suzyeats.com

  • Elizabeth

    I have learned to eat salad without dressing. If I do use anything it’s fresh lemon juice , fresh ground pepper, and a little sea salt. I let these ingredients sit on my salad for awhile and they seem to bring out the flavor of the salad veggies.

    • Michelle

      That IS bold! This is a case that REALLY calls for outstanding ingredients – nothing for those leaves to hide behind!

      • fifty

        Yeah, amazing! My 15 yr old daughter does the same thing, says she doesn’t like dressings. I’ve been shocked for the past year, which is how long she’s been having dressing-less salads (we do buy ours from the store).

        But then, this is a kid who LOVES broccoli, and ABSOLUTELY LOVES my homemade chicken noodle soup (with homemade chicken stock). So much so, that she makes herself sick eating it when I add broccoli to the soup.

    • Lucía

      Hey Elizabeth! I also used to eat salad without dressing, but then I discovered what Michelle mentioned above, that some of the vitamins from the veggies won’t be absorbed without a bit of fat, so now my salads get the extra-virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar (I guess that would be the translation, here it’s called “vinagre de jerez”, sour and delicious!) treatment. Though I guess if you are eating it with a meal that contains some fat, you could skip the oil.

    • moni

      i have been eating my salad w/o anyhing for awhile too… but your idea sounds great! can’t wait to try…

  • http://www.cleareyedsky.com Liz

    Always my favorite: olive oil and red wine or balsamic vinegar. Add garlic, salt and pepper, then whatever herbs sound good at the time. After you finish your salad, use some fresh-baked bread to help “clean” the bowl!

    • Ashley M

      Or EVOO with lemon juice and salt/pepper works for a fast tasty salad too.

      • ctb

        Yes indeed!
        I used to make a dead easy fruit vinaigrette recipe that’s just awesome, if you like sweet. & I’ve a very nice Italian herb vinaigrette recipe as well.

        Now tho, I’ve like nothing more than a squeeze of fresh lemon (we have a Meyer lemon tree), S&P & a spoonful of olive oil on my own salads.

        • Michelle

          Can you share your fruit vinaigrette recipe?

          • ctb

            Happy to:

            1 clove garlic, crushed
            1/3 cup vinegar, lemon juice or a mixture of both
            2 generous Tbs. fruit preserves (raspberry is great, so is fig)
            1/3 cup olive oil
            1 tsp. pepper, or to taste
            pinch of salt

            Blend all ingredients until smooth – best in a blender, but you can whisk instead. Strain seeds out before using, if desired.

  • Pamela

    I never eat salad with dressing. It just masks the taste of the vegetables. I also CAN’T eat salad in winter. Something about it just taste off to me. Maybe because most of the veggies in winter are shipped from Mexico and Chile?

  • jMack

    Here’s another good reason not to use bottled dressing: it’s insanely expensive!! Jjust a little OO and BV on my greens.

  • Ginny

    Well I can’t eat salad naked. Love you peeps who can, but not for me. Always homemade dressing though! Many of my faves involve tahini; here’s a classic:

    1/4 olive oil
    1/2 cup raw tahini
    3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or lime juice
    1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt or Himalayan crystal salt

    Blend all well. ENJOY!

    • http://katzinn.com meezermom

      This sounds great – I have some extra jars of Tahini on hand. I used to keep lots of it around to make hummus before I found out I was gluten intolerant and can’t eat the pita bread. :(
      This will be a great way to use it up! Thanks much!

      • http://www.suzyeats.com Suzy Eats

        There are some gluten free pita breads. I have tried a couple that have tasted pretty good and are still healthy. -www.suzyeats.com

  • http://katzinn.com meezermom

    Traveling is always an issue when it comes time to find something to eat – especially for those of us who have gluten intolerance. Airports are just about impossible because so many things can’t be brought in. I generally carry a bag of nuts and some dried fruit with me at all times just in case there’s nothing for me to eat!

    Thanks for the heads up on the Carmel color – I like to use a lot of different flavored vinegars, oils, with water and fresh herbs when I have them. I just checked the various Balsamic I have on hand right now – two of them have Carmel color in them. As you said the little I use probably won’t hurt me, but it’s a good thing to look for when making a decision on which products to choose.

    There are some fun varieties of vinegar out there from cherry (Michigan) to most the most commonly used apple type. Blackberry Ginger Balsamic, which has barrel aged balsamic, Marion blackberries, sugar, honey, sea salt, ginger and spices is my favorite (from a New York company called Tavern on the Green – I got it while traveling along the east coast).
    However, one of the others I really like – white balsamic infused with fig has natural flavors listed at the bottom, which I hadn’t noticed when coming across fig vinegar at a reasonable price.

    I have a salad just about every day so I like to vary what I put on it, sometimes its just a splash of vinegar, sometimes just capers instead of dressing or most often I mix the vinegar, oil, water and whatever herbs I have growing on my window sills (one can grow various herbs and ‘winter’ lettuces on the window sill even in a gray winter state like Michigan – and the energy efficient CFL bulbs have the right frequency (spectrum colors) for growing some winter – non blooming -crops indoors). I have a couple of special cruets with measurements on the glass showing how much of each ingredient is ‘recommended’. These have stopper tops and make enough dressing for at least a couple of weeks for me (I believe a little dressing goes a long way, but I’m not quite to the point of leaving it off all together). I would recommend adding these to anyone’s kitchen supplies – I found them in the aisle where the dressing mixes are at the grocery (years ago) – they’re easy to use when one is in a hurry.

    I heartily agree the bottled dressing from the store tastes awful and ruins the salad. This is so funny; again you have made a post which relates to something I’ve been thinking about recently – making some different salad dressings! I’m looking forward to trying many of the recipes listed – especially Miso Ginger (I have all the ingredients on hand so I’ll try this one today)

    My husband is addicted to Newman’s Own Honey Mustard– at least the content list isn’t as bad as some of the others – anyone have a good honey mustard recipe? My husband doesn’t like vinegar.

    Thanks again for all the good information – and to everyone for sharing their recipes!

    BTW: I haven’t tried the kale sautéed in coconut oil yet, but I had spinach on hand and tried that – yummy! Kale this week!

  • debra mimaroglu

    The dressing. OMG I just went to the site to see if they still offered the Newman dressings, not as good as your own but better than most processed, and saw what was in the chicken breast. Now I know why I always hated the taste of the grilled chicken breast. And to think I thought I was trying to eat healthy.

    • Michelle

      Ya, Newmans’ is actually one of the BETTER ones! They do use xanthan gum which is still going to give it a gummy texture, but they don’t use flavors or preservatives … Their steak sauce, however DOES contain caramel color, so as a co. they’re not immune to the caramel color conflict that’s occurring …

  • Jesi

    I often make my own dressing and we got this fun little emulsifier for a wedding gift from Crate and Barrel that makes my life much easier :) It stirs any vinaigrette easily and has a cap on it so I can take it in my lunches for work.

    I also have discovered Penzeys Spices which has a nice Buttermilk and Peppercorn Dressing Base that you can mix yourself at home. Ingredients are simple and contain no preservatives, fillers, etc. Just basic seasonings you can find in your own spice rack and then you mix a bit of buttermilk or yogurt with it. Yummy!

    • Michelle

      Do they make that emulsifier in airplane carry-on sizes? :)

  • ctb

    Ugh! Airport food is gross – I refuse to waste my $$ on it = P
    Whenever I’m traveling, I stock up on energy bars, other healthy snacks like grapes, cherries, organic jerky to keep in my carryon/purse…

  • Blair

    My favorite personal recipe:

    3 parts hazelnut oil
    1 part raspberry jam (homemade if you can get it)
    1 part sherry vinegar
    generous portion of cracked black pepper.

    Whisk to combine.

    Also tastes great for a brocoli slaw dressing.

  • Diane

    In case anyone is interested, here’s more on the Marukan Seasoned Gourmet Rice Vinegar that I recommended yesterday & find quite irresistible:

    The ingredients are: water, rice, sugar, salt. It is quite widely available in major grocery stores. At their web site (http://www.marukan-usa.com/index.html) I just noticed that they have a “Light” version of this with reduced sugar & salt, but I haven’t tried it. They also have other types of rice vinegar. It does seem that the sodium level is high in the type I named in my email – 530 mg per tbsp.

  • Mari

    Great idea about packing a 3oz dressing. Could come in handy for a number of seasoning applications in a travel setting. But in case you forget again, or for any other frequent travelers. See this link for the 10 best airport restaurants in America: http://www.frommers.com/articles/7194.html

    • Michelle

      I was being somewhat facetious about packing the dressing (since it’s all I can do to remember my toothbrush), but there are certainly times when I’ve wished I had! Thanks for that link! No excuses anymore!

      • Mari

        Oh no, I’m with you on that (forgetting things)… though I can only imagine the look on my husband’s face if I packed oil and vinegar for a trip!

  • http://www.pamelasalzman.com Pamela

    Good post, Michelle! My main problem with bottled dressings is the oil. Even if the dressing is made with “natural” ingredients, it is unlikely made with unrefined olive oil, but instead some cheap-o refined, overprocessed oil. I taught my 12- and 14-year olds how to make my favorite basic dressings and that’s one of their weekly jobs in the house. I think it makes them eat more salad, too! Here are my go-to vinaigrettes:

    Also, keep in mind that MSG goes by lots of other names – too many to mention here but the words “hydrolyzed,” “autolyzed,” “yeast extract,” even “natural flavors” are a tip-off. It’s really criminal.

    • Michelle

      So true about the olive oil. It is rare to find even a premium one that uses top quality extra virgin olive oil. It has partly to do with cost as well as with the fact that refined oils keep much longer on a warm store shelf…

  • fourmyeyes

    My usual dressing is sesame oil, olive oil, flax seed oil (not for taste, but because it will go unnoticed), lemon juice and a drop of balsamic. Couldn’t possibly give any measurements – I just pour and mix till it tastes good.

    • Michelle

      I had forgotten about how easy it is to add flax to salads – yes, a good oil to use. The taste can be kind of intense but I see how the sesame would cut it nicely … My Mum uses flax oil on toast rather than butter! Loved that idea!

  • Agent Scully

    I always wonder what “Natural & Artificial Favors” means exactly. Just yesterday I was googling around to find out what kind of “natural flavor” La Croix uses to flavor their sparkling water. I still have no answer…

    • Agent Scully

      *natural & artificial fLavor

    • Michelle

      Funny you should bring this up b/c I am just working on a post on this topic. (I already wrote about it in the context of soup stock. See that post here.) Natural flavor is in so many products we have just accepted it as “natural”. It’s not. The answer to your Q of what kind of natural flavors they use is: the kind of flavor that makes the water taste like they think their customers want it to. The regulations around flavors are very loose and the distinction between “artificial” and “natural” flavors somewhat dubious … When “natural” is made in a lab,with enormous amounts of chemicals, how natural is it really …

  • Paul

    Good quality olive oil
    Fresh lemon juice

    You have to experiment with quantities to your taste. I use this almost exclusively on everything. Salad, chicken, pasta, broccoli, anything!

  • http://www.50by25.com Laura

    O’Hare has REALLY terrible options for healthy food; I usually go with a salad from Wolfgang Puck. It’s more expensive, but the ingredients seem a bit fresher than the McDonald’s salads.

    • Michelle

      No doubt! Likely pricier too but in retrospect I think it would have been a good investment …

  • http://worldplates.wordpress.com Amy Miller

    Touché – I just did a team building dinner and did not buy dressing, rather, had one of the groups make it from scratch. It was a revelation to most of the 30 people in attendance that you could mix olive oil, balsamic, mashed garlic, lemon juice, dried mustard, s&p and get something that tasted so good. Made me happy.
    We lived overseas for years and my now 16 year old daughter will only eat salad ‘dry’ or with oil and vinegar (and won’t touch anything breaded). If the fish still has the head, skin and bones – bring it. It’s the little things in life that count. Thanks for such informative posts. Keep ’em coming.

    • Michelle

      Wow! That is one daring daughter you have! Even I (who prides myself on my food-adventurousness), can’t eat fish if it’s looking at me …

  • Cindy

    I rarely buy store bought but when I do, I buy the ones that are kept in the refrigerated section – at least I know they are perishable, made with pure ingred and without preservatives!

  • http://www.suzyeats.com Suzy Eats

    I usually make a Mediterranean one with garlic, sea salt, lemon and olive oil. You can add walnuts for a fruit and walnut salad or even use it as a caesar. It is very healthy and fresh. -www.suzyeats.com

  • http://fresh-basil.com/ margaret

    Wow. Just what I was looking for. I make a killer vinaigrette (similar to yours), but you can’t eat that with every salad. Thanks for sharing!

    I can’t find a store-bought dressing will all-natural ingredients so I prefer to make my own. Like you.

    Do you make a blue cheese dressing?

  • http://nomnomfoodblog.blogspot.com/ Susan

    Three things:

    1) If you’re at O’Hare, you should go to Rick Bayless’ torta stand in Terminal 1. Fresh food and delicious.

    2) Thanks for this rundown of disgusting things. Over my late-December break, I discarded all store-bought dressings from our fridge. My favorite dressing is just a little oil, vinegar, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, s&p. Delicious.

    3) Your list reminds me of an old “Animaniacs” song that my brother and I would sing on car trips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XthZ7rFPKh8

  • http://lentilbreakdown.blogspot.com Lentil Breakdown

    I never use store-bought, and even at a commercial salad bar, they usually have a cruet of olive oil and balsamic for you to make your own (subpar of course). If it has canola oil that’s not organic, it’s probably genetically modified canola, one of the biggest GMO crops. My favorite homemade dressing is EVOO, red wine vinegar, dijon and shallots.

  • http://lifeinnorthernmichigan.blogspot.com/ Debra

    Great Blog!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tonia.samman Tonia Samman

    totally agree and am proud to say that i’ve never even bought bottled dressing! my mom always made it homemade, and it always freaked me out when i would go to eat dinner at a friend’s house and their mother would put bottled dressing on the table next to the salad bowl. my go-to dressing is basically your balsamic-dijon recipe, but i also add fresh chopped garlic. i usually use a jar to shake it up too. sometimes i’ll add a little dollop of mayo to make it creamier and/or mix whole grain dijon with the regular creamy (always maille, it’s the best!)

    my other go-to for a more summery salad is the same but with lime juice instead of balsamic, and fresh cilantro (either chopped up in dressing or just with the leaves thrown in the salad itself).

  • http://www.injust10pages.com/blog/gluten_intolerance_blog Gluten Intolerance

    I think McDonald’s salad is the best one because it contains low protein. I’ve never tried to eat salad with dressing, but I will try this out this summer vacation to taste what’s good in it. Thanks!

  • http://wendybottrell.com/ Wendy Bottrell

    Our favorite salad dressings are the simple ones, olive oil, lemon, garlic and sea salt! The simple flavours allow the food to explode with deliciousness! http://wendybottrell.com