By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 11, 2011; 4:17 PM
I'm willing to bet you have a bottle of ranch dressing in your fridge right now. I know I do.
But I'm not especially proud of that fact.
Ranch has for several years been the most popular dressing in the land, according to the Association for Dressings and Sauces. It's also the top dressing choice at U.S. restaurants, according to Mintel International Group. People, including my 14-year-old son, dip just about anything in the creamy, garlicky sauce, from baby carrots to pizza crusts.
But tasty as it may be, ranch dressing, full of fat and spiked with sodium, isn't the best nutritional bargain.
I've been letting that slide at home. But in a larger sense, I'm not convinced our obsession with ranch is such a good thing, so far as our health is concerned.
I got to thinking about ranch in December when, as part of the fanfare surrounding President Obama's signing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, folks at the White House offered a week's worth of school lunch menus that had been reworked with an eye toward making them more healthful. Four of the new lunches featured low-fat ranch dressing.
The menus pair it with grape tomatoes, green pepper strips, baby carrots and broccoli. The idea, of course, is to encourage kids to eat more veggies, and who's not in favor of that? School nutrition experts and cafeteria workers know that just plopping vegetables or fruit on a tray without doing something to make them palatable to kids results in heaps of uneaten produce in the trash bin. That's a big waste of food, money - and opportunity.
Oakland, Calif.-based Hidden Valley Ranch has long marketed its signature product as a means of getting kids to love vegetables. There are some reasons to be concerned with this approach. One is that kids topping broccoli with ranch know there's a vegetable under there, but they might not fully taste it. Hence, they may never develop a zeal for broccoli that's not been doused in dressing.
Also, ranch dressing, especially when its fat is reduced, is packed with sodium, says dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Sarah Krieger. A two-tablespoon serving of Hidden Valley's light ranch contains 290 milligrams of sodium; Kraft's light ranch is even worse, with 440 mg of sodium. The government's latest recommendation on daily sodium consumption is 1,500 mg.
Still, Krieger, who helps kids ages 8 to 12 manage their weight and develop better eating habits, stands by including the dressing in diets, saying it "can be a great vehicle" for getting vegetables into children's mouths. The key, as always, is portion control. A few tips:
- At home, help your child measure two tablespoons of dressing onto his plate, then put the bottle back in the fridge. You'll both be surprised at how little dressing that is (less than half of a 3-ounce Dixie cup).
- Remind your child that the dressing's for fresh vegetables only. No fair dipping french fries or chicken nuggets in it!
- Be aware that Hidden Valley's lunchbox-friendly tub of light ranch dressing holds 21/2 servings, for a total of 725 mg of sodium and 200 calories.
Having said all that, there's still a place for ranch in a nutritious lunch. Jodie Shield, a Chicago-based registered dietitian who has worked with Hidden Valley on its Love Your Veggies campaign, notes that the revamped school lunches may have less total sodium than the meals they replace, which feature more highly processed foods. In any case, she says, the first task for parents and others concerned with kids' nutrition is to get them eating vegetables in the first place. "If they're not eating any vegetables, to worry about sodium is a low priority," she says.
Despite her concerns over sodium, Krieger agrees. Given the choice between vegetables with ranch and no vegetables at all, Krieger says, "I'd rather there were ranch. It's more important to eat vegetables."
Which brings me back to my own kid. Call me a hypocrite, but I'm not inclined to take his ranch dressing away. Does it bother me that he's ingesting all that extra sodium? For sure. But am I happy to see him eating vegetables, albeit ones slathered in ranch?
Yes, I guess I am.
The original, handmade batches of buttermilk dressing were made in the mid-1950s by Steve Henson at his Hidden Valley Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif. Buttermilk is now the sixth ingredient in the Hidden Valley full-fat dressing, after soybean oil, water, egg yolk, sugar and salt; it's third on the light variety's ingredient list, which starts with water.
Alternatives to ranch for kids
The dip-it-in-ranch approach is in keeping with a controversial notion that adults should do whatever they can to get vegetables into kids' mouths, even if that means disguising the food or masking its taste. Like ranch, these dips have a bit of sodium. Try alternating them with ranch if you don't want to make your kid go cold turkey. (Nutrition facts are per 2 tablespoon serving.)
Tostitos Chunky Salsa
- 10 calories
- 0 grams fat
- 250 mg sodium
- 50 calories
- 3 1/2 grams of fat
- 130 mg sodium
Newman's Own Light Honey Mustard
- 70 calories
- 4 grams fat
- 280 mg sodium
What's in a serving?
A serving of dressing is two tablespoons. When's the last time you limited yourself to just that amount? As with many processed foods, it's a trade-off between fat and sodium.
Hidden Valley Ranch
- 140 calories
- 14 grams fat
- 260 mg sodium
- 130 calories
- 13 grams fat
- 370 mg sodium
Hidden Valley Ranch Light
- 80 calories
- 7 grams fat
- 290 mg sodium
Kraft Light Ranch
- 80 calories
- 6 grams fat
- 440 mg sodium