Condiments are one of the easiest ways to amp up the flavor in your foods. While the addition of some condiments provides flavor and little else, some can actually ramp up the health factor of your meal, while some of your favorites may be heaping hundreds of calories and unnecessary sugar, fat, and salt onto your already healthy meals, sabotaging your efforts to eat lighter and cleaner.
Anything in excess can be bad for you, so just because a food is low in calories doesn’t mean it’s free license to eat as much as you’d like. To keep our condiment analysis true and accurate, always stick to recommended portion sizes.
Salsa: 1 oz, 8 calories, .9g sugar
Veggies, herbs and spices, what could go wrong? If you’re whipping up your own, not much, but grabbing a jar of name brand salsa off the shelf can mean you’re pouring on preservatives, chemicals, loads of sodium, and even added sugar if you’re a fruit salsa fan. Big companies will pump their salsa full of preservatives to keep it shelf stable. Think about it — how else can “fresh” veggies sit on a shelf for weeks and still be edible?
If you go fresh and all natural, salsa can be an amazingly healthy and delicious option for just about anything. If buying from the store, you should be able to recognize every ingredient on the label. If making your own, dice up fresh roma tomatoes, onion, cilantro, garlic and a little jalapeno and pile that pico high to sneak in an extra serving of veggies. Try it on eggs, over chicken, or mixed with brown rice and kidney beans for a satisfying meatless Mexican filling.
Olive Oil: 1 oz, 238 calories, 0g sugar
Oil is full of fat, there’s no getting around that. But fat isn’t all bad! You need it (albiet, not very much) to protect your heart, brain and liver health, as well as make your hair and nails thick and strong. Where people go wrong with olive oil is how they use it. Olive oil serves a specific purpose: it coats food and keeps it from sticking. This process also, thankfully, seals in the vitamins that would normally leach out during cooking (and boiling — don’t boil your veggies unless you want to drink the water, too!)
Toss veggies in olive oil or coat the pan before cooking, but avoid recipes where it comes by the cup instead of the tablespoon, like pestos. That also means watch it while using it as salad dressing, but a little oil drizzled with balsamic makes the healthiest salad topper.
Mustard: 1 oz, 19 calories, .2g sugar
The mustard plant is an under appreciated leafy green, but the mustard seeds used to make the condiment have a lot of healthy properties, too. Enzymes in the mustard seeds, when ground, break down into the compounds that make mustard so tang,y which have been shown to limit the growth of cancer cells, specifically in the colon.
The ingredients in a bottle of mustard are pretty straight forward: vinegar, water, mustard seed and spices, and while some flavor variations, like dijon, may have a few more additives, yellow mustard doesn’t have anything too funky, aside from the dye. Low in, well, pretty much everything, mustard is as close to a freebie as you can get, so squirt it on your sammies or mix with Greek yogurt for a dip or marinade.
Sriracha: 1 oz, 0 calories, 6g sugar
Sriracha is new on the age-old condiment scene, but it has sky rocketed to popularity (there is even Sriracha flavored beer!). David Tran used his Vietnamese and Chinese roots to develop the chili sauce in LA in the early 1980s. That’s right, Sriracha is American born. Chili peppers contain capsaicin, an inflammation-fighting phyochemical that can lower blood pressure, fight migraines, and soothe intestinal diseases.
This spicy sauce is great on anything you want to add a kick to, like our Sriracha Oven Fries! If you can’t take it straight, try combining with mayo and nonfat Greek yogurt for a lower-fat chili mayo for turkey or chicken burgers.
Guacamole: 1 oz. 44 calories, .9g sugar
Guacamole is so delicious, it’s really the only condiment you ever have to pay extra for. Peeled and mashed avocados serve as the base for guacamole and then typically diced tomatoes, garlic, lemon or lime juice, cilantro, and onion are added to the mix.
Pre-made guac at the grocery store isn’t always entirely avocado and vegetables, they often have chemical additives to keep it green and extend its life. Although guacamole is relatively high in calories (1 avocado contains 322 calories), several nutrients, like healthy fats, vitamin A and antioxidants, make this dip a healthy option. Skip the tortilla chips and eat it with chopped veggies, homemade pita chips, or dollop on chicken or fish.
It’s simple to make, like this Eva Longoria guacamole recipe, so whip up your own at home.
Jam/Jelly: 1 oz. 79 calories, 13.7g sugar
Jelly is a clear fruit spread made with sweetened fruit juice. Jam is a chunkier version with both fruit juice and fruit pieces. Fruit is good, but already high in sugar, so if you then add sugar to the mix, you might as well be pouring chocolate syrup on your PB and J. There are no-sugar added versions of both jam and jelly, but those are full of artificial sweeteners and preservatives, so you’re best left eating the real sugar, in small quantities, that you control. Try our Strawberry Chia Seed Jam recipe if you just can’t do without the sweet stuff.
Ketchup: 1 oz, 38 calories, 7.6g sugar
Everyone loves ketchup because it’s the perfect blend of sweet and salty, a combo most palates crave. This flavor combo comes from two diet disasters — salt and sugar — it’s not even real sugar but high fructose corn syrup. Heinz, the leading ketchup brand, has wisened up and started offering a more natural version that is just tomatoes, vinegar, salt and sugar, eliminating all of the “what the heck is that” ingredients, but it does little to healthify it. Salt and sugar need limited and ketchup is a big culprit for sneaking more of it into your diet.
BBQ Sauce: 1 oz. 100 calories, 25g sugar
BBQ sauce is a sweet and tangy addition to meats on the grill, but it’s full of sugar — both refined white and brown. Typically, the high sugar content is the only issue since the other ingredients are just spices, tomato paste and vinegar, so you can try to make your own healthier version and lower the sugar, but be warned the taste will suffer. If you can find a low-sugar recipe you enjoy, go for it, but you’re better off reading labels closely and choosing the lowest sugar, most natural option possible.
Peanut Butter (Smooth, Unsalted): 1 oz, 167 calories, 2.6g sugar
Peanuts can be a great source of heart healthy fats and protein, but high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils are what give big name peanut butter brands their signature smoothness and sweet taste. For a healthy, no-brainer peanut butter choice, the ingredient list should be one word long: peanuts. Nuts already have plenty of oil in them.
Invest in a food processor and blend your own peanut better, or experiment with different nuts, like walnuts, macadamia nuts, or hazelnuts. Peanut butter is extremely calorie dense, so watch you portion sizes. Try mixing peanut butter into your morning oats (when it melts, it’s heaven) or add a tablespoon to your post-workout smoothie.
Sour Cream (Cultured): 1 oz, 61 calories, .1g sugar
Ninety percent of the calories in sour cream come from fat, at least half of which is saturated. While the fat percentage is high, the total amount isn’t, considering a serving of sour cream is just 2 tablespoons. That 2 tablespoons provides less than 100 calories, even less if you go for the light or fat-free options, which also have added carbohydrates. Most people prefer the taste of full-fat sour cream, however, so stick to the serving size and stay away from dips with full fat sour cream as the base because you can easily consume 4, 5 even 6 times that through mindless munching.
Soy Sauce: 1 oz, 20 calories, 0g sugar
Soy sauce is a salty favorite of Asian cuisine. All soy sauces are fermented, but the more traditional versions tend to be a bit healthier because they are also unpasteurized to retain beneficial enzymes. Because the sodium content is so high, however, these versions are still not optimal, but a far superior choice to the commercial soy sauces found in supermarkets and restaurants. Those commercial versions are made from soybean meal and corn starches that are chemically processed to speed up production, then neutralized with sodium carbonate to produce a dark brown liquid. Then sugars, caramel coloring and other flavorings are added before bottling. So for the healthiest soy sauce, get the genuine old fashioned fermented raw stuff. Because of soy sauce’s strong salty flavor, less is required to produce the same taste profile as table salt, so it makes it a good option to add salty flavor while reducing your salt intake but a light hand is paramount.
Maple Syrup: 1 oz, 74 calories, 16.9g sugar
Maple syrup comes from maple trees: a hole is drilled in the tree and the sugary sap leaks out and is collected. The fluid is then boiled until most of the water evaporates, leaving a thick syrup, which is then filtered to remove impurities. There are different grades of maple syrup, all decided by the color. Darker grades have the highest levels of antioxidants, which are good for inflammation. Beyond that, maple syrup is just a natural sweetener, with no redeeming nutritional qualities. Compared to other sweeteners, however, it’s the lesser of a lot of evils. The dark syrups have a stronger maple flavor and are usually used for baking or in recipes, while the lighter ones call to be drizzled on top of your pancakes and waffles. If you’re going to buy maple syrup, then make sure to get actual maple syrup, not just maple-flavored syrup which is nothing more than fake-flavored high fructose corn syrup.
Ranch Dressing: 1 oz, 137 calories, .7g sugar
Ranch used to be just for salads, but now it seems everyone is using the creamy dressing as a dip almost as much as ketchup. Ranch dressing is usually made with unhealthy vegetable oils making it a calorie bomb. There are low calorie and diet versions, but they have more chemicals than a laboratory and offer a poor taste imitation. If you need real ranch, go for the full fat and keep portions low. To really control what goes into your ranch dressing, make it yourself. The secret is in the herbs: specifically dill. Try our Ranch Dressing Mix and adjust for your tastes.
Mayo: 1 oz, 170 calories, 0g sugar
Mayo is loaded with fat, which also makes it high in calories — everyone knows that. The spread isn’t the diet culprit everyone thinks it is, though. Mayonnaise is made up of a few simple ingredients: vegetable oil, egg yolk, vinegar and a salt, which means it’s a pretty natural condiment. However, just because it’s whole in recipe, doesn’t mean it has any nutritional benefits. Canola and olive oil mayonnaises are available as “healthier” options since both are higher in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but the calories are the same. Mayo is usually used just to add moisture, but you can always get this moisture from healthier condiments, like mustard or mashed avocado to keep calories in check.
image by Kacy Meinecke for DietsInReview.com