Ranch dressing is one of the four basic food groups – at least that’s what my husband tells me. Some have billed it as “the new ketchup.” Ranch dressing has become so universally loved that ranch pops up everywhere in popular culture, inspiring the creation of Ranch flavored breath mints and silly commercials promoting ranch-scented candles.
I can’t say I think it’s a food group, but ranch and salad dressings are definitely a win-win. Not only do they make eating fresh produce more enjoyable, they provide fats that help you better absorb the nutrients on your plate. (source) Later this week I’m going to share a creamy ranch recipe from my friend Kristen of Food Renegade. If you haven’t picked it up yet, her ebook, Simply Salads by Season, is full of recipes that will have your family diving for the salad bowl at dinner.
Before we get to that, though, I want to share with you why my family ditched store-bought salad dressing – even the organic stuff!
Reason #1 Nanoparticles
“Isn’t this shade of lily white delicious?” . . . said no one ever. And yet, food manufacturers add titanium dioxide nanoparticles – the same compound used to make sunscreen and brighten paints – to many foods as a colorant and thickener. Have nanoparticles been tested for safety as a food additive? Um, noooooo.
As we’ve seen over and over, the policy of the food industry seems to be “Put it in the food system now . . . ask questions later.”
So what are nanoparticles?
“Nanotechnology involves the engineering and manipulation of particles at a nano scale. Nanoparticles, as they’re called, are measured in nanometers or billionths of one meter.”
To get an idea of just how tiny they are, think about it this way: “If a nanoparticle were the size of a football, a red blood cell would be the size of the field. Although some nanoparticles have been found to exist in nature (carbon nanoparticles exist in caramelized foods, for instance, and silverware has been shown to shed nano-sized silver particles), it’s the nanoparticles that are engineered in laboratories that have environmental health advocates concerned.”
What we know . . . and what we don’t
Like other controversial ingredients (see scary ingredient #2), companies are not required to tell you if their foods contain nano-materials. “From the government’s perspective, nano forms of silver, iron or titanium are no different, fundamentally, from their scaled-up counterparts which have already been safety tested, so the agency has ushered the particles into the food supply under the Generally Recognized as Safe provision.” (source)
Problem is, it “turns out most materials start behaving differently at that size . . . materials reduced to the nanoscale either through engineered or natural processes can suddenly show very different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale.'” (source, emphasis mine)
According to Environmental Magazine correspondent Brita Belli, “Science has already shown that nanoparticles, once ingested, can be taken up by the intestinal tract and, depending on their size, pass into the lymph nodes, affecting the immune system, or into the capillaries, where they can settle in various organs.” (source)
What kinds of effects could they have? Well . . .
“A Cornell research team led by Gretchen Mahler, Ph.D., found that when chickens consumed large doses of polystyrene nanoparticles, approved for human consumption, it had two opposite effects. When exposure was acute (i.e., a lot given in a short amount of time), it blocked the animals’ ability to absorb iron. When exposure was chronic (i.e., a little over a longer period of time), it resulted in increased intestinal villi and an increased rate of iron absorption. Chickens absorb iron much like humans, and although Mahler would not speculate if a similar effect may be happening in humans, she admits that her research suggests nanoparticles can induce changes that may not be obvious.
‘Nanoparticle exposure, even exposure to nanoparticles that are generally considered safe, can have unintended physiological consequences,’ Mahler says. ‘Nanoparticle-based materials are being developed for many different applications and the human response, especially the more subtle effects related to chronic exposure, is not always known.’” (source)
Can organic foods contain nano-particles? No. The National Organics Standards Board recently banned the use of nano-materials in foods labeled as organic. (source)
2. Genetically-Modified Ingredients
Even when they say “made with olive oil” on the label, most salad dressings contain cheap filler oils like soy and canola. Since about 90%+ of the soy and canola produced in the U.S. is genetically modified, chances are that bottle of Italian vinaigrette is, too.
Why should I avoid genetically-modified ingredients?
They’ve been linked to infertility, immune system dysfunction, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, changes in major organ systems, and damage to the intestinal lining, among other things. CNN covers some of the risks of genetically modified foods here, as well as how to avoid GMO’s.
Opting for pricier organic brands?
Even when they’re organic, inexpensive oils like soy and canola oils are not good options. Here’s why. While I consider sunflower and safflower better options, they are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which if consumed in excess can “depress immune system function, contribute to weight gain and cause inflammation.” (source)
Well then, what oils are left? Olive oil from a trusted brand is an excellent choice. Coconut oil is also wonderful for making homemade mayo.
3. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Whoops! Not only does high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contribute to elevated triglyceride levels, insulin resistance and increased abdominal fat, it may also contain mercury.
In 2008, researchers bought a random sample of HFCS- containing foods off store shelves. Nearly “one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was found most commonly in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments.” (source) The likely source of the neurotoxin is “mercury cell technology,” which utilizes mercury in the manufacturing process.
When the study was released in 2009, the Corn Refiners association claimed that mercury contamination was no longer an issue because they’d changed their “mercury cell” technology several years before. However, the samples were taken after the change, and they did admit that some plants are still using old technology.
4. Trans Fats
Fun fact: Not only can food companies hide the existence of GMOs or nano-particles in their products, they can also print blatant untruths. For example, manufacturers are allowed to call their products “trans fat free” even if they have .49 grams of trans fat per serving! (source)
Why should I avoid trans fats?
“Trans fats: lower good (HDL) cholesterol, increase levels of atherosclerosis-causing lipoprotein-(a), cause tissues to lose good omega-3 fats, interfere with insulin, increase anti-cardiovascular C-reactive protein, interere with enzymes that metabolize fats, and interfere with the functioning of the immune system, whereas saturated fats do not.” (source)
Bottom line: If it says “partially hydrogenated oil,” “hydrogenated vegetable oil,” or “shortening” on the label it contains trans fats, no matter what the pretty lettering on the front says.
In “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills,” board certified neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blalock explains the neurotoxic effects of food additives such as MSG. Studies suggest that exposure may create learning difficulties and emotional instability in children while damaging a part of their brain that controls hormones, leading to endocrine problems later on. (source) It’s also been linked to an increased incidence of brain tumors and migraines, and is thought to worsen conditions like Alzheimer’s.
It’s commonly used in salad dressings and condiments, even organic ones, but don’t expect to see it on the label. MSG has more aliases than an international spy.
How to find hidden MSG
Before you pop your item in your cart you might want to check for a few more things, like natural flavoring, yeast extract, torula yeast, autolyzed yeast, gelatin, textured protein, whey protein, soy protein and basically anything that doesn’t sound remotely close to MSG.
Don’t give up on salads yet!
Making delicious dressings and condiments at home is faster and easier than you probably think. Here are are a few recipes to get you started:
- Thousand Island dressing recipe
- Ranch dressing recipe
- Homemade tartar sauce recipe
- Homemade ketchup recipe
- Homemade chipotle bbq sauce
My friend Kristen also has an her entire collection of tried-and-true, tested recipes in her ebook, Simply Salads. You can check out what’s included and download a sample chapter here.
Photo credit: Janelle Poulette