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?
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