Ranch dressing: How good is it for you?

  Enlarge Photo    
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 10, 2011

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:

3 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).

3 Remind your child that the dressing's for fresh vegetables only. No fair dipping french fries or chicken nuggets in it!

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company