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Choosing a Healthy Salad Dressing: Beware the Hidden Sugars!

February 24, 2021
Choosing a Healthy Salad Dressing: Beware the Hidden Sugars! - Lark Health

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Adding more salads to your regular meal rotation is a great way to get more vegetables and healthy nutrients into your diet. But did you know that the salad dressings you choose to toss your salads with could be turning your meal into an unhealthy one?

You might not realize it, but many store-bought bottle dressings are brimming with unhealthy ingredients that can be very harmful to your health – like added sugars.

Becoming a label detective and choosing healthier store-bought dressings (or better yet, making your own simple dressing recipes at home) can help you to avoid these unnecessary added sugars and other unhealthy ingredients.

The Problem With Most Store-Bought Salad Dressings

Most store-bought salad dressings contain a very long list of ingredients – many of which are not very good for you. They are often made with loads of sodium, saturated fats, artificial ingredients, preservatives, and added sugars. Too much of these can harm your heart health, spike your blood sugar, contribute to weight gain, and much more.[1]

One of the biggest problems with bottled salad dressings is that they can contain high amounts of sugar per serving. Salad dressings might not seem like sweet products that would contain sugar, but they are actually a common source of hidden sugars in the diet.

For example, Ken's Fat-Free Sun-Dried Tomato dressing contains 13 grams of sugar per serving.[2] That is quite a lot! That's about one-third of Lark's recommended daily limit of less than 40 grams of sugar per day. As you can see, just a few tablespoons of salad dressing can really add up when it comes to sugar intake.

And don't be fooled by low-fat or fat-free labels. You may think that you are doing yourself a favor if you choose these versions of salad dressings, but they are actually even worse when it comes to hidden sugars.

When food manufacturers remove fat, they tend to make up for it by adding sugar to their products to make them taste better. But this comes at a cost to your health. Studies show that low-fat versions of food products like salad dressings contain higher amounts of added sugars than their regular counterparts.[3,4]

By pouring a bunch of dressing onto your salad, you could unknowingly be turning a healthy salad into a not-so-healthy meal loaded with sugar.

How To Choose A Healthy Bottled Salad Dressing

Don't let healthy looking labels or brand names fool you – store-bought salad dressings often contain hidden ingredients that aren't good for your health.

Follow these tips if you are going to the store to buy a salad dressing and want to bring home a healthier option. If you have a favorite brand that doesn't meet these healthy standards but you feel like you really can't live without it, then try cutting back your portion size to only one tablespoon or less, or dilute the dressing with water, low-sodium chicken broth, or extra vinegar to make it go farther.

Read The Label and Choose Your Ingredients Wisely

Always check the nutrition facts and ingredient lists on the bottle before buying. If there's a long list of ingredients that include things like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, etc., then leave it on the shelf. If it has a simple list of ingredients and the nutrition facts have low amounts of sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, then it may be a better option.

Look For 2 Grams of Sugar or Less

Harvard Medical School recommends that you choose salad dressings with no more than 2 grams of sugar per serving. Some of their favorites include Annie's Organic Balsamic Vinaigrette, Bolthouse Farms Italian Vinaigrette, and Cindy's Kitchen Chipotle ranch, all of which contain less than 2 grams of sugar per serving, less than 100 calories, and less than 120 mg of sodium.[1]

Avoid Low-fat or Fat-free Dressings

These tend to contain more added sugars than their regular alternatives.[4]

Opt For Vinaigrettes Rather Than Creamy Dressings

Many Americans are accustomed to creamy salad dressings, but do yourself a favor and stick with oil and vinegar dressings. These offer the most health benefits and tend to have the least drawbacks. Olive oil, for example, is an ingredient in vinaigrettes that is especially beneficial for overall health and heart health.[5] The CDC recommends eating oil-based salad dressings the most often, and low-fat or full-fat creamy salad dressings the least often.[3]

Watch Your Serving Sizes

If you are eating more than the recommended serving size of bottled salad dressings, then you may be getting even more than you bargained for when it comes to unhealthy ingredients like hidden sugars. A healthy serving size of dressing in 2 tablespoons or less.[3,6]

The Healthiest Choice: Make Your Own Salad Dressing Recipes

Making your own food – including your salad dressings – gives you more control over what you eat. That way you can know every last ingredient that goes into the end product, allowing you to choose carefully what you are putting into your body to nourish it.

The Cleveland Clinic suggests that simple oil and vinegar salad dressings are the healthiest options out there, as they can help improve your health and even help you lose weight.[5]

Luckily, these kinds of salad dressings are incredibly simple to make. In fact, they really couldn't be any easier. Simply mix together oil and vinegar or citrus juice, and you've got a dressing.

Here are some healthy ingredients you can experiment with in your healthy oil and vinegar salad dressing recipes:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Canola oil
  • Nut oils
  • Red wine vinegar
  • White vinegar
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Herbs
  • Spices
  • Chopped garlic
  • Mustard

Easy Salad Dressing Recipes To Try:

  • The American Heart Association recommends a quick and simple vinegar and oil salad dressing recipe of 8 tablespoons of oil whisked together with 4 tablespoons of vinegar. To that simple base, you can experiment and add your favorite flavors like garlic, ginger root, dried Italian seasoning, etc.[6]
  • If you like Mediterranean-style flavors, try this recipe from the Cleveland Clinic of 2 cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon ground oregano, 1 cup extra virgin olive oil, and 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice.[7]
  • Spice it up with Harvard School of Public Health's Hot Pepper Vinaigrette made of 1 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons dried red pepper flakes, 1/4 fresh lemon juice or 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.[8]
  • If you are short on time, forget following a recipe and simply drizzle a little olive oil and then a little balsamic vinegar over your already-made salad.

The Bottom Line

Salads are a good way to boost your vegetable intake and make sure you are loading up on healthy nutrients. But many people unknowingly make a mistake with their salad dressings, counteracting any good the salad provides by using a store-bought dressing on it.

Many bottled dressings are loaded with hidden sugars and other harmful ingredients like sodium, preservatives, saturated fat, and more.

It is important to know what is in your dressing, and to make better choices that support your health. Follow the tips above to choose healthier dressings, and remember to stick to just 2 tablespoons or less of any salad dressing.[3,6]

If you can, get creative in the kitchen and spend just a few minutes preparing your own dressing. It is simple, easy, and fast to whip up a batch that can last you a while, and you can rest assured that you'll only be putting healthy ingredients into your body.


  1. Is your salad dressing hurting your healthy diet? Harvard Medical School. May 2017. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blood-pressure/is-your-salad-dressing-hurting-your-healthy-diet.
  2. FoodData Central. Ken's Steak House, Fat Free Vinaigrette Dressing, Sun-Dried Tomato. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Modified September 11 2018. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/407327/nutrients.
  3. Tasty Recipes for People with Diabetes and Their Families. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/managing/Tasty_Recipes_for_People_with_Diabetes-508.pdf.
  4. Nguyen PK, Lin S, Heidenreich P. A systematic comparison of sugar content in low-fat vs regular versions of food. Nutr Diabetes. 2016 Jan 25;6(1):e193.
  5. Health Essentials. One Simple Salad Dressing May Benefit You in More Than One Way. Cleveland Clinic. August 10 2018. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-one-simple-salad-dressing-benefits-you-in-more-than-one-way/.
  6. Simplest Vinegar & Oil Quick Salad Dressing. American Heart Association. https://recipes.heart.org/en/recipes/simplest-vinegar–oil-quick-salad-dressing.
  7. Health Essentials. Recipe: Mediterranean Salad Dressing. Cleveland Clinic. June 11 2019. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/recipe-mediterranean-salad-dressing/.
  8. The Nutrition Source. Hot Pepper Vinaigrette. Harvard School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/hot-pepper-vinaigrette/.

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