WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

Are Some Condiments Bad for You?

March 17, 2021 - Katie McCallum

We all have that friend who seems to take condiments one step too far. Or maybe you are that friend.

(No, not the one who puts mayo on their fries...that's a debate for a different day.)

We mean that friend who you can always count on to drench their food with some sort of condiment as soon as their server brings their plate. And — because, let's face it, we can't resist — we always joke, "Want some fries with your ketchup?"

It's all in good fun, but it does beg the question: Which condiments are healthier and which aren't?

Whether you've always wondered about the hidden sources of calories, sugar, fat and salt you slather on your food or never thought twice about them, Houston Methodist wellness dietitian Amanda Beaver is here to answer whether or not condiments can actually be bad for you.

Q: Are condiments considered food?

Amanda Beaver: While condiments aren't the star of the dish, they can be thought of as a "supplemental food" that's used to enhance or complement a dish.

Condiments most definitely supply calories that come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, depending on what the condiment is made of. They also can supply vitamins or minerals such as sodium or potassium. (Yes, sodium is a mineral.)

Q: What makes a sauce or condiment "unhealthy"?

Amanda Beaver: There are a few factors that can make a condiment less healthy.

First, it's common for condiments to be high in both sodium and added sugar. What's more, we may not even notice. Food manufacturers can be quite sneaky in this way. For example, two tablespoons of one of the top brands of barbecue sauce has the added sugar equivalent of four sugar packets!

Second, another factor that affects condiment healthfulness is how much you use. In many cases, the amount of added sugar or salt is reasonable only if you use the amount listed on the bottle.

For example, my favorite hot sauce brand has 110 milligrams of sodium in a one-teaspoon serving. This is only 4.5% of the daily value — seems reasonable, right? Except, I don't know about you, but I don't use just one teaspoon. I use more like one tablespoon … plus! This now becomes about 330 milligrams of sodium -- or about 14% of my daily value.

Low-sugar and low-salt versions of many condiments exist, but we may end up using more to compensate for there being less flavor. I found this happening to me when I tried a low sugar/salt version of my favorite condiment: ketchup. I ended up using way more than I normally would.

Q: Which condiments are healthy and which condiments are unhealthy?

Amanda Beaver: First thing's first: while sorting condiments by healthy versus less healthy can help you make healthier choices, it's a narrow way to view things.

Here's my list as a guide, but know it's okay to enjoy these condiments in moderation and on special occasions. I certainly do!

A dietitian's top condiment picks

  • Guacamole Rich in healthy fats and often contains other nutritious ingredients like cilantro, diced onion, garlic and even some chopped tomato.

  • Pico – Tomatoes, onion, jalapeno and lime add a refreshing balance to tacos, enchiladas and burritos or burrito bowls.

  • Dijon mustard – Spicy, robust and creamy, this condiment tastes great on sandwiches, as a marinade and mixed into quick homemade salad dressing.

  • Hummus – Chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini and olive oil blend into a creamy texture that tastes great as a dip, spread or addition to a bowl meal. They also provide a bit of protein, healthy fats and fiber to help fill you up.

  • Tzatziki sauce – A creamy, nutritious condiment that features yogurt, cucumber, olive oil, salt, herbs and lemon juice, it tastes great as a snack when paired with crunchy red bell peppers and cucumbers or as an accompaniment to pita sandwiches.

  • Sriracha – Adds a spicy kick to your favorite stir fry or homemade fried rice, with the bonus of being less salty than traditional hot sauce.

Condiments that carry a salt alert

  • Soy sauce – Adds a rich umami (savory) taste to dishes, and small amounts can be added to recipes for a fuller flavor. But beware: Just one tablespoon of soy sauce has 960 milligrams of sodium, or 42% of your daily value! And while there are "less sodium" alternatives, one tablespoon of such soy sauce varieties still has 575 milligrams of sodium, or 24% of your daily value. When I cook with soy sauce, I avoid adding extra salt, or limit the amount, as the soy sauce provides plenty of it.

  • Salsa – This one can be a bit sneaky. Some brands of salsa have reasonable amounts of salt, but others can be quite high. One major brand has 230 milligrams of sodium in two tablespoons, or 10% of your daily value. And, I don't know about you, but I typically use at least a quarter cup of salsa!

Condiments high in added sugar

  • Ketchup – Ah, my personal favorite. This sweet, tangy, salty, savory condiment truly has it all. The main thing to watch out for is the added sugar. One tablespoon has the same amount of added sugar as a sugar packet. My advice is to enjoy this one in moderation.

  • Fancy ketchup – The main difference between fancy and regular ketchup is that fancy "Grade A" means it's thicker and smoother in texture and has a brighter red color.

  • Barbecue sauce – Many brands of barbecue sauce are high in sugar. My favorite is the Stubb's brand that originated here in Texas. It has a little more vinegar and less sugar than other leading brands.

  • Honey mustard – This mustard variety typically has about one gram of sugar per teaspoon of mustard, which is about the same amount as ketchup. It's typically made with vinegar, sugar, mustard, honey and spices and it's really easy and tasty to make at home!

Condiments that pack in the fat

  • Mayonnaise – Made with oil, egg yolks, salt and lemon juice and/or vinegar, this condiment is higher in calories than other condiments — about 90 calories in one tablespoon.

  • Aioli – Ever wondered what was in that delicious condiment at your favorite fancy burger joint? Aioli is typically mayonnaise but with extra flavor added, such as garlic, sriracha, paprika, etc. It can also be made with olive oil, garlic and salt.

  • Ranch – A condiment with a very devoted fan base. Interestingly, the two primary ingredients are vegetable oil (soybean and/or canola oil) and water … not what you'd expect! The flavor comes from buttermilk, spices and MSG. To make this on your own (and with more protein), try mixing ranch seasoning powder with plain Greek yogurt. You can also make your own ranch seasoning powder.

  • Queso – Sometimes a dip, sometimes a topping or condiment, the ingredients in queso vary widely depending on if it's homemade, from a jar or on a restaurant menu. The primary ingredients in a jar of queso are water, skim milk and Monterey Jack cheese; whereas many homemade recipes use Velveeta (a processed cheese product) and Rotel (canned tomatoes with green chilies).

  • Pesto – Many people think this is a healthier sauce because it's green. While pesto can be nutritious if made with olive oil, basil, nuts and garlic, many grocery store pesto sauces have between 200 to 320 calories per one-quarter cup and 500 to 980 milligrams of sodium! My tip is to make this one from home — you can even add some spinach to make it extra green in color.

  • Chick-fil-A sauce – Another condiment with a huge following, but what's in this sauce anyways? The top three ingredients are soybean oil, sugar and barbecue sauce. Mustard, paprika, lemon juice and vinegar are also there to add flavor. Since two tablespoons of this sauce contain about 160 calories, I recommend picking up just one packet next time you eat Chick-fil-A.

Q: Are there tips for making healthier condiment choices?

Amanda Beaver: If you want to make healthier condiments choices, here's the bottom line:

  • Enjoy condiments in small amounts as a way to enhance your food or recipe. Rather than a giant pour, eyeball between one tablespoon to one-quarter cup, depending on the condiment.

  • Slow down! Instead of mindlessly wolfing down three packages of Chick-fil-A sauce (don't worry — we've all been there), take your time to recognize and enjoy the creamy, salty, sweet flavors in condiments.

  • At least glance at the nutrition facts label. This can help you identify sneaky sources of sodium and added sugar. If you have high blood pressure, it's particularly important for you to check the sodium content and consider seasoning your food with extra lemon or lime juice, spices, herbs, or garlic instead.

  • Try making healthier versions of condiments yourself. This can be a fun way to treat yourself, and it may have less salt and/or sugar than the packaged alternatives — not to mention fewer extra ingredients and preservatives. I love whipping up an avocado Greek yogurt dipping sauce, tzatziki sauce, guacamole or tahini lemon salad dressing for my friends and family. I recommend starting with any easy sauce that doesn't require you to dirty up your blender or food processor.
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