For years, commercial fat-free salad dressings were a frequently used tool in my weight-loss/maintenance toolbox. Those dressings helped me reduce or eliminate fat and keep calories low while adding flavor to my homemade fresh vegetable salads. Using fat-free dressings seemed to be a good idea, since I believed they helped me lose weight and keep it off. All good until I began reading the ingredient lists. High fructose corn syrup and other sugars seemed to frequently come second on most lists.
There was almost no way to avoid those sugars if I wanted to keep my mealtime hassle-factors low. Then I began making very-low-fat salad dressings at home using chicken (or vegetable) broth slightly thickened with cornstarch. That made a dandy and flavorful substitute for 95 percent of the oil in my salad dressings and significantly cut calories, too (a cup of oil delivers almost 1,950 calories from 216 fat grams).
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I figured that if my from-scratch dressings needed a sweet flavor note, I could use a no-calorie sugar substitute. Making them a pint or a quart at a time kept the preparation nearly hassle free.
For years I've been pleased with my solution, but recently I read a study that stated: "If you have a salad with a fat-free dressing, there is a reduction in calories, but you lose some of the benefits of the vegetables."
That study determined that fat in salad dressing makes the healthy carotenes (lutein, lycopene, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin) from vegetables nutritionally available. Without those fats, fat-soluble nutrients just aren't in a form our bodies can use.
The study also noted that the amount of oil consumed mattered more (more oil transports more nutrients) than what kind of oil. Since monounsaturated fat is considered a healthy fat source, olive oil with its highest-of-all-oils monounsaturated fat content, would be my first choice for salad dressings with canola coming in second.
This scientific revelation got me thinking about what's healthier; cutting calories by trimming fat or lowering calories by reducing unnecessary sugars and other refined carbohydrates, such as white flour. The choice was obvious.
I went back to my original reduced-fat salad dressing recipes and made an oil and vinegar dressing by whisking oil into Dijon mustard and then adding vinegar and seasonings. Excellent. Carefully adding just enough dressing to lightly coat my salad -- a mix of lettuce, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, radishes and onions -- still limited fat calories while delivering the nutrients Mother Nature intended. Based on science and not theory, that's truly healthy.
Try this recipe: Here's a terrific summertime macaroni salad that uses olive oil and still keeps its fat calories to nearly 30-percent. Give it a try.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at email@example.com.