After regulating it 70 years, FDA wants out of French dressing game

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In the grand pantheon of salad dressings, French dressing can be easily forgotten — a sticky, sweet, carrot-colored blend overshadowed by America’s undisputed heavyweight champion of dressings, ranch.

But the federal government has shown great interest in the humble dressing, painstakingly regulating since 1950 the ingredients that it must contain and revising the rules at least five times since then.

Now the government wants to get out of the French dressing business.

On Dec. 18, the Food and Drug Administration said it was proposing to revoke its definition and standard of identity for French dressing — effectively erasing the government-sanctioned list of ingredients at the request of an industry group, the Association for Dressings & Sauces.

“The standard does not appear necessary to ensure that the product meets consumer expectations, and the FDA has tentatively concluded that it is no longer necessary to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers and may limit flexibility for innovation,” the agency said.

Marion Nestle, a professor emeriti of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, offered a slightly less sunny reading of the industry’s motivation for seeking the change.

“They want to do it because they want less fat than what’s in the standard of identity, and they want to put more junk in it,” she said. “And their argument is, everybody knows what these things are, and everybody knows what they’re buying.”

The association did not return a call for comment.

The FDA said it was reevaluating its oversight of French dressing as part of its Nutrition Innovation Strategy, which is intended to “modernize food standards to maintain the basic nature and nutritional integrity of products while allowing industry flexibility for innovation to produce more healthful foods.”

The agency added that it was “important to take a fresh look at existing standards of identity in light of marketing trends and the latest nutritional science.”

French dressing is one of hundreds of foods — including mayonnaise, bread, ketchup and milk chocolate — whose makeup the agency controls. It has argued that many of the rules are more than 75 years old and are no longer needed.

The lengthy and legalistic regulations for French dressing require that it contain vegetable oil and an acid, such as vinegar or lemon or lime juice. It also lists other ingredients that are acceptable but not required, such as salt, spices and tomato paste.

Despite its name, French dressing is not French at all, according to Paul Freedman, a professor of history at Yale and the author of “American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way.”

The dressing was originally a simple vinaigrette made of oil and vinegar, but it gradually became the gooey, sweet, tomato-inflected dressing we recognize today, Freedman said.

Unlike the French, who tend to relegate sugar to dessert, the dressing reflects Americans’ love of all things sugary, from honey mustard to bacon slathered in maple syrup, he said.

Still, it barely ranked in a 2017 study by the Association for Dressings & Sauces, in which 40% of Americans named ranch as their favorite dressing.

Freedman, however, said he was among those who consider French dressing a treat.

“Actually, I have a certain weakness for it,” he said.

Some formulations in recent years, such as low-fat French dressing, contain less than the required amount of vegetable oil (35% by weight), and there is no evidence that consumers have been deceived or misled when buying those varieties, the FDA said.

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