Salads just aren’t salads without a little dressing! Nutritionist Rose Carr explains what to look for, to ensure you pick the healthiest option.
Having a salad with your meal, or as a meal, can be a healthy choice, but you need to be careful how you dress it. A salad dressing can make a salad more appetising and encourage or increase your vegie intake, but it can also add lots of extra kilojoules and fat, depending on your choice.
Some dressings are high in energy because they’re high in fat – containing up to 80 per cent fat or more. Generally, the fats are healthy (unsaturated) fats, which we do need in our diets – we just need them in moderation. If you do go for higher fat/higher energy option, make sure you check the amount of saturated fat it contains: five per cent saturated fat (that’s 5g per 100ml) is a good.
But before you get carried away with a pantry full of ‘fat-free’ products, remember there is good scientific justification for having some fat with your salad: the fat helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins in the salad ingredients, such as the vitamin A in carrots. In one study, researchers found more antioxidants were absorbed when salad was eaten with a full fat, rather than a reduced-fat, dressing. In another study, dressings made with olive oil and apple or wine-based vinegars were shown to increase the antioxidant activity of the salad.
Some salad dressings have no sodium while others have a lot, so it’s important to check the nutrition information panel on the back of the bottle. If you have high blood pressure or you’ve been told to lower your sodium intake, make sure you choose dressings with less than 1000mg sodium per 100ml – in fact, the lower the better! Be aware that many of the Asian-style dressings in particular are high in sodium.
A traditional vinaigrette, creamy dressing or mayonnaise-based dressing can have anywhere between 2000–3000kJ per 100ml. This means a tablespoon would supply a whopping 400–600kJ. So, it’s easy to see how an extra dollop (or two) of dressing can make a big difference to the amount of kilojoules in your salad.
For those who need to watch their energy intake, there are now lots of tasty options with around half the kilojoules, and even less, than the traditional version. But remember, there can still be a big difference between one dollop or two, especially with creamy dressings.
Dressings are about adding moisture and flavour to salad – and fat has traditionally been the main flavouring agent. Products with little or no fat usually have sugar added to increase flavour and body. Adding a dressing, even if it has a little added sugar, can make a salad more appealing, (especially to those of us who struggle to get five serves of vegetables each day) so, like a bit of fat, it’s not necessarily a bad thing – but try to choose a salad dressing that has less than 15g sugar per 100ml.