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How to Choose a Salad Dressing

Author: Beatriz Carmona, Dietetics student at Auburn University

Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD

Salads can be transformed from drab to flavorful with just a simple splash of dressing. Not only do dressings have an endless array of flavor and spice possibilities so you can find your perfect fit, but they’re also incredibly easy to make! This blog will cover the basics of what constitutes the best healthy salad dressing and will give you the tools to make your own fresh, nutritious, and affordable vinaigrettes, ranches, and more.  

Dressing not only helps salads and vegetables taste better – encouraging your 5 a day – but also helps you absorb the fat-soluble nutrients in these meals! These include Vitamins A, D, E, and K, some of which are found in leafy green vegetables. The ingredients in the dressing are important in determining overall healthfulness as it matches your needs.

How should you select a healthy salad dressing?

  1. Search the ingredient list
    • Limit: 
      • Saturated fats (<1 gram per 2 tbsp serving)
      • Sugar (< 2 grams per 2 tbsp serving) 
      • Salt (< 200 mg per 2 tbsp serving)
        1. Too much salt in one’s diet can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and even bone calcium loss
      • Artificial ingredients (caramel color, Yellow 5, Yellow 6)
    • Look for: Olive or Canola oils (olive is an excellent choice for salad dressing), Vinegar, or Lemon juice.
  2. Steer away from misleading claims:
    • Make sure you’re not being healthwashed: claims like “All-Natural” and “Healthy” are not defined or regulated by the FDA. These claims may be deceiving when we don’t consider all of the food’s properties. Watch for these terms: 
      • “Gluten-free”: while helpful for someone suffering from Celiac in helping to determine absence of gluten in manufacturing, salad dressing doesn’t contain gluten in the first place and so this claim is simply decorative.
      • “Made with all-natural ingredients”: there is no official “all-natural” definition, and thus this claim has no real meaning. 
    • Ditch the fads! Some companies have tried to market their dressings by making them fit a certain new trend that doesn’t necessarily make the dressing healthier. In fact, these marketing claims can be at odds with the nutritive value of dressings. 
      • “Fat free”: It doesn’t make sense to make them fat-free or low in fat, when this is in complete contrast to the nature of a dressing. As mentioned previously in this article, the fat in dressing helps to absorb those essential fat-soluble nutrients such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Fat-free dressings will often have other additives that are artificial to compensate for the texture you’d expect in a full-fat dressing. 


The most basic way to organize different types of dressing is by base ingredients. 

  1. Creamy: Base ingredients can be sour cream, buttermilk, greek yogurt, mayonnaise, seed/ nut butter, avocado
    • Ex: Caesar, Ranch, Thousand Island, Avocado, Tahini, Thai peanut, Honey mustard
  2. Vinaigrette: These usually contain olive oil as the base, with vinegar and an emulsifier (egg yolk, honey, mustard, or seed butter)
  3. Ex: Italian dressing, Balsamic, Raspberry, or Apple Cider Vinaigrette

Standard Recipe for “The Best Salad Dressing”

(Modified from this guide to homemade salad dressing

  1. Add 1 cup base (olive oil, flaxseed oil, greek yogurt, avocado oil, tahini)
  2. Add 1/3 cup acid (white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lime juice, orange juice)
  3. Add 1 tbsp emulsifier (dijon mustard, egg yolk, mayonnaise, mashed avocado, honey) 
  4. Add 1-3 tbsp flavor enhancers (thyme, parsley, dill, cilantro, mint, shallot, anchovies, capers, olives, red pepper flakes)
  5. Finish off with salt and pepper, to taste!

The Word on Oil

A really popular recent topic has been the debate on which type of oil is healthy or not. The American Heart Association recommends these oils as a general rule of thumb: canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. A blend of these is known as “vegetable oil”. More expensive but still recommended by the AHA are the oils of avocado, grapeseed, rice bran, and sesame. All of these oils have less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and no trans fats!

Recommendations for the best store-bought salad dressing

I tend to be repetitive when it comes to salads (my go-to is butternut squash with chickpeas and cranberries on a bed of spinach!), but am always up for an adventure with new salad dressings. I’ve tried them all, and these are some of my favorites:

  1. Newman’s Own: Classic Oil & Vinegar
    • If you like a simple, fuss-free dressing, this Oil & Vinegar blend is your best bet! Newman’s Own is great for any classic salad or to spice up a subway sandwich. 
  2. Annie’s: Natural Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing
    • This is my personal favorite. Balsamic Vinaigrette provides a perfect balance of tanginess and richness that adds another layer of flavor to my favorite salads. I like to sprinkle this on a bed of kale with roasted butternut squash, roasted brussel sprouts, chickpeas, and cranberries. The Vinaigrette does a fantastic job of tying it all together!
  3.  Bolthouse Farms: Avocado Green Goddess Yogurt Dressing
    • This lighter version of the typical green goddess dressing, containing 0 grams of saturated fat and minimal ingredients, is a wonderful option if you opt for a creamier dressing. Its texture – thanks to the yogurt – is more similar to that of Caesar or Ranch dressing, but without the saturated fat.
  4. Primal Kitchen: Italian Vinaigrette with Avocado Oil
    • Italian vinaigrette sometimes gets a bad rep for its corn syrup and artificial ingredients, but this version stays away from all that by instead opting for a minimalistic and nourishing ingredient list: avocado oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, and various spices. 


  • Dressings containing dairy or other perishable items such as chopped egg or mashed avocado can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 1 week


  • Make great gifts for the salad lover in your life
    • Homemade dressings make wonderful presents, and can be customized to the preference of the recipient. Make this dressing one or two days in advance, put it in a wonderful mason jar with a waterproof label, and refrigerate it until presentation!
  • Waiting to dress your salad until the very last minute helps maintain crisp greens
    • Leafy greens, especially thinner ones such as spinach and lettuce, tend to wilt with exposure to liquids. If you are preparing a salad ahead of time, don’t include the dressing until just before you eat it (and if you’re traveling, try to include the dressing in a smaller container for easier transportation). 
    • One exception to this is kale; this heartier green can withstand more time with the dressing! You can even make an overnight kale salad by dressing a raw kale salad the night prior – the dressing will soften the raw kale bits and drastically improve the texture! 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I choose a dressing at a restaurant?
    • Restaurants should be able to list or tell you the ingredients in their dressing options. If you can’t find the ingredients, ask the waiter or another staff member. Look for simple, whole ingredients: olive or canola oils, vinegars, fruit juices, spices, and emulsifiers such as mustard, honey, or tomato paste. 
  • Is it possible to make my own dressing at a restaurant?
    • Most certainly! Though it’s not a traditional option, you are free to ask your waiter for the basics: oil and vinegar, as well as any mix-ins you’d desire such as mustard or spices. 
  • Is soy sauce a good substitute in Asian Dressing? I thought soybeans were bad. 
    • The claim in the past has been that soybeans contain estrogen, which can disrupt your hormone levels. However, the type of estrogen they contain actually has not been found to have a damaging effect on the body. Soybeans have what’s known as “phytoestrogen”, which is an isoflavone that can bind to estrogen receptors in the body. Studies so far have not provided a clear answer as to whether they block or promote the action of estrogen in the body, but in either case, the effect is very weak and has only been seen in animal studies. In human studies, consuming soy foods has a protective or neutral effect in regards to menopausal symptoms, heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, and even age-related memory loss. 
    • If you’d like to still limit your soy intake or reduce the sodium in soy sauce, check out coconut aminos. This is an allergy-friendly substitute for soy sauce that is soy-free and usually gluten-free, with significantly less salt than its soy counterpart. 
  • Is there a healthy replacement for ranch dressing?
    • Most certainly! Ranch dressing is a “creamier” style made primarily of mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk and herbs like parsley and dill. Thus, it can be easily substituted with a greek yogurt ranch dressing, or even an avocado dressing!
  • Is xanthan gum healthy? It’s used to keep ingredients from separating and coats salads better. 
    • Xanthan gum is a type of food thickener made from fermentation that is used in many recipes to help stabilize and thicken mixtures. Research on its health effects is limited, but it mostly has had a neutral effect in human studies with the occasional side effect of bloating or gas. There is some speculation that xanthan gum disrupts normal gut bacteria reproduction, which should be taken into consideration. 

Have questions? Comments? I would love to hear what you think below!

best salad dressing; best healthy salad dressing; best oil for salad dressing;, How to Choose a Salad Dressing
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