Condiments—those little extras like salsa, mustard, chutney, relish and ketchup—can make a meal by boosting flavor and texture. But, if you’re not careful about what you choose at the supermarket, condiments can also break a meal. While not all are nutrition negatives, many products are loaded with extra calories, fat, sodium, and sugar that can push you way beyond healthy limits. So use these shopping tips when deciding what condiments to buy.
Condiments and your health
Some condiments are great sources of phytochemicals. Ketchup and salsa, for example, provide lycopene, a carotenoid that’s been linked to a reduced risk of some types of cancer, including prostate, lung and stomach. Horseradish and mustard are members of the same family as broccoli and cauliflower and thus contain some of the same cancer-fighting compounds. Mayonnaise gets a bad rap for being high in fat and calories, but the fat is actually from healthful unsaturated vegetable oil. On the other hand, while most soy products are rich in isoflavones, which are thought to have some health benefits, soy sauce is devoid of these compounds, as they are lost during processing.
Portion control is key when it comes to dishing out the condiments. It’s easy to pour on tons of ketchup or shake on the soy sauce without realizing just how much the calories, fat, sugar and sodium are adding up.
Understanding condiment products
There is a huge variety of condiments available. It’s not just mustard anymore—it’s honey mustard, sweet mustard, hot mustard, Dijon mustard, spicy brown mustard, even horseradish mustard. Ketchup can be organic or no-salt-added, and it comes in flavors like red pepper, chipotle and curry. The same is true of salsa—mango, black bean, roasted garlic, peach and pineapple, to name a few. Check nutrition labels, particularly for sodium and sugar. Soy sauce is the biggest sodium offender (up to 1,000 milligrams per tablespoon), but there are reduced-sodium varieties (though they still rack up 500 to 600 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon). Mustard, hot sauce, salsa and horseradish are lowest in calories, fat and usually sodium. Use them in place of other condiments when you can.
Condiments: good-to-know facts
The next time you grill, fry or broil your meat or chicken, consider using a marinade. Here’s why: Cooking methods that expose meat to extremely high temperatures create potentially cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When fat drips on the heat source, the resulting plumes of smoke can coat meat with other dangerous chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Marinating meat can reduce the risk. Researchers have found that it can decrease the formation of these compounds by up to 90 percent. Some store-bought products, including marinade powders (you add oil and vinegar) and teriyaki sauces, can be particularly effective. Or use your own combinations of cider, citrus juices, vegetable oils, mustard and herbs and spices—even beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, while a small amount of sugar can play a bit part in a marinade, sugars, in general, tend to increase HCAs. So watch out for commercial tomato or BBQ sauces that have a lot of sugar added to them—they could end up contributing to, rather than inhibiting, HCA formation.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for condiments
- Buy reduced-sodium, low-sodium or no-salt-added versions of your favorite condiments. But even that is not always a guarantee of keeping a lid on sodium since some, like soy sauce, remain high no matter what.
- “Natural” brands of condiments are typically lower in sugar and sodium—but not always, so always check labels. Fruit-sweetened ketchup is also typically lower in sugar and sodium.
- Choose “light” or low-fat versions of mayonnaise and tartar sauce to save on calories (still, the fat in these condiments does come in the form of healthful vegetable oils, such as soybean oil).
- Stock up on salsa, which tends to be nutrient-rich, yet fat-free and low in calories, and sugar—and lower in sodium than other condiments. It can sometimes substitute for ketchup.
- Pick up some hot sauce to up the flavor factor of your meal. It’s often high in sodium, but a little goes a long way. At home, test your tolerance before you pour it on.
Published August 15, 2013