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After 72 years, FDA says French dressing won’t have a legal definition

According to the FDA’s long-standing stipulation, French dressing had to contain vinegar or lemon or lime juice, with vegetable oil making up at least 35 percent of the product’s weight. (Torontonian/Alamy Stock Photo)
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Your French dressing may no longer need to be at least 35 percent vegetable oil.

The “standard of identity” for French dressing, a legal definition that has been on the books since 1950, is being revoked, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday. The regulatory agency explained that its requirement for what French dressing must include “no longer promotes honesty and fair dealing” for consumers’ benefit.

In fact, rescinding the decades-long standard will “provide greater flexibility in the product’s manufacture, consistent with comparable, nonstandardized foods available in the marketplace,” according to an FDA filing to the Federal Register, set to be published Thursday.

The announcement came in response to a petition filed by the Association of Dressings and Sauces in 1998. The group complained then that the FDA’s strict formulation of French dressing limits innovation and thus the number of options available to consumers.

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Low-fat and fat-free versions of the creamy vinaigrette, despite having growing customer interest, could not be legally deemed as such, the group said in its petition. (It did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.)

According to the FDA’s prior stipulation, French dressing must contain vinegar or lemon or lime juice, with vegetable oil making up at least 35 percent of the product’s weight . Ingredients such as salt, tomato paste and spices are allowed but not required.

The federal regulatory body did not respond to a request to address the time lag between the 1998 petition and its recent decision.

With the standard of identity gone, French dressing can have less vegetable oil or more tomato paste so long as these ingredients are safe to consume. And now manufacturers may have the flexibility to explore new recipes of French dressing or label their products without having to worry about federal regulations.

For instance, the Illinois-based Mullen’s brand named one of its best-selling products the “Imitation” French dressing because it contains only half of the oil and fat content previously required by the FDA.

“To meet state and federal law requirements, we chose to change the name rather than add more oil to the original recipe,” the company said on its product page. “You’ll find this delightful pouring type dressing light and delicious.”

French dressing isn’t the only dining table staple with a precise FDA definition. For example, mayonnaise has to be no less than 65 percent vegetable oil (by weight), and vanilla extract must be at least 35 percent ethyl alcohol (by volume).

In late 2020, the FDA proposed that it revoke the standard of identity for frozen cherry pies, a household favorite that must have a quarter of its weight taken up by actual fruit, with no more than 15 percent of the cherries blemished. The dessert also cannot contain any artificial sweeteners.

These rules, according to cherry-pie makers, were outdated, unnecessary and perhaps even anti-American. The FDA chief at the time, Scott Gottlieb, agreed, writing on Twitter that “the American people” would now be free to “add extra fruit, sugar, and make the crust especially thick.”

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