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Ask JJ: Balsamic Vinegar

Proceed with caution, whether you're using balsamic vinegar or its kissing cousin balsamic vinaigrette, which, as a salad dressing, can have added sugar, oil, and seasonings. And don't be fooled by those fancy-sounding commercial balsamic vinegars.
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Dear JJ: Did I hear you say balsamic vinegar isn't as healthy as we might think? I thought pairing it with an extra-virgin olive oil was my ideal salad dressing.

With warmer weather upon us, creating a big dinner salad becomes ideal, especially when you don't want to spend hours in a sweltering kitchen. Dinner salads can be healthy, but dressing often gets people in trouble.

I love extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). Among its benefits, studies suggest this rock star oil can help improve memory and learning, help boost antioxidant status in healthy elderly people, and help create greater weight loss compared with a low-fat diet for breast cancer survivors. Oh yeah, and EVOO tastes pretty darn amazing. Just make sure you choose quality oil and beware of diluted or otherwise-inferior EVOOs.

Now for the bad news: Balsamic vinegar falls under my "sneaky sugar" category. This health-halo triggering vinegar becomes one of those foods -- actually, condiments -- that people liberally douse on salads thinking they've received a nutrition gold star.

Don't shoot the messenger. Many commercial balsamic vinegar varieties are high-sugar impact syrupy disasters. As blogger Meathead on The Huffington Post says, "some cheap balsamics have so much sugar they can turn to candy!"

But wait, you say, balsamic is vinegar, and vinegar is healthy. Well, not quite.

"[B]alsamic vinegar isn't like other vinegars," writes Julie R. Thomson. "Balsamic is made from aged pressed grapes, not wine, and the very definition of vinegar is a product made from fermented alcohol. Liars. But that's not the only bit of fraud with which balsamic is riddled. Most of the balsamic you buy at the grocery store isn't even balsamic at all."

To understand why, let's backtrack. Balsamic vinegar comes in two varieties, the real deal and the get-it-on-the-shelf-fast kind.

The real deal -- authentic, traditional balsamic vinegar -- has been made in Italy for hundreds of years. It's expensive and prized by gourmet chefs and foodies. It takes years to come to market and undergoes rigorous testing before it does. Made from white grape juice, which is boiled to create a concentrated syrup, it's fermented and then aged in wooden casks for a minimum of 12 years.

The aging process removes water, making balsamic vinegar thicker than regular vinegar and further concentrating the grape sugar. Since it has more sugar, it has more calories, too (even though, like apple cider vinegar, it does have antioxidants).

Of course, big food companies aren't going to endure a 12-year production process to get a $3-a-bottle product onto shelves. So they accelerate its journey with highly processed manufacturing, supplying you with something called "condiment balsamic vinegar," modeled after the good stuff.

There are variations in the process and the time it takes, but there's no requirement that it be aged 12 years; sometimes it's aged as little as two months.

The sad reality is, this vinegar we know as balsamic is usually made from white wine vinegar and has caramel coloring (for color and added sweetness) and thickeners like cornstarch and gum, all of which add calories.

"Upon closer inspection you might find that what you actually have is imitation balsamic, which is basically cheap wine vinegar with coloring added to it," writes Thomson. "The key is to look at the ingredients list for the words 'grape must,' 'aged grape must,' or 'Mosto d'Uva.'"

This imitation balsamic is the stuff we get in salad dressings, sauces, dips, and marinades. It can have as many as four times the number of calories in a cup as regular cider vinegar!

So proceed with caution, whether you're using balsamic vinegar or its kissing cousin balsamic vinaigrette, which, as a salad dressing, can have added sugar, oil, and seasonings. And don't be fooled by those fancy-sounding commercial balsamic vinegars.

Better yet, skip it altogether, especially if you aren't going for the real (expensive) stuff. Red wine vinegar becomes an easy swap that's a huge improvement in flavor over balsamic.

Keep your dressing simple. Mix a base of some high-quality EVOO with a dash of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and some seasoning to taste. Voila!

Or experiment with some red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard combinations. If you're feeling creative, you can try tahini, a creamy spread made from sesame seeds. How about olive tapenade in place of olive oil, or some guacamole? As long as you're working with low-sugar impact ingredients, mixed to suit your taste, it's hard to go wrong, and finding a fabulous new dressing can give your salad new zing.

What's your go-to dressing for a healthy summer salad? Share yours below. And keep those fab questions coming at