The Truth About Condiments

What’s a sandwich without a little mayonnaise or a hamburger without a little ketchup?

Bland, some might say, but others might say, “Healthy!”

Indeed, many of the condiments we grew up using are not very good for us.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go bland to eat right. Below, we’ve got seven of the unhealthiest condiments that you might be using right now, along with some recommendations for how you can either a) make them better or b) replace them with something that’s still tasty but better for you.

1. Ketchup

It’s made with tomatoes, so what could be wrong with that?

The problem with most store-bought forms of ketchup is that they contain too much sugar. High-fructose corn syrup is the most commonly used type of sweetener, and it not only adds unnecessary calories but has also been linked in studies to a higher risk of weight gain than regular old table sugar.

“Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity,” said study author and psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. “But, our results make it clear that this just isn’t true … .”

Indeed, one serving of ketchup often contains the equivalent of a packet of sugar, and we now know that too much sugar can be inflammatory as well as fattening. Reduced-sugar ketchup may be no better as it often contains an artificial sweetener — most of which have been linked with negative health effects.

What to use instead: There are many options here. You can slice up some real tomatoes on your sandwiches, spritz on a bit of tomato vinaigrette or find some organic, low-sugar ketchup options. You can also make your own ketchup with a little natural tomato paste, some spices, a little apple cider vinegar and water.

2. Mayonnaise

Most store-bought versions of this condiment are unhealthy because they’re high in calories. Even if you make a healthy sandwich, you’re going to ruin your diet by putting the mayonnaise on it. Just one tablespoon contains about 120 calories and about 13 grams of fat.

Most of that fat is made up of omega-6 fatty acids, which some research has linked to a higher risk of weight gain. Although nothing is inherently wrong with omega-6 fatty acids, we tend to get too many of them in our modern diets and not enough omega-3s and other varieties of fatty acids. This unhealthy ratio has been found to increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as some inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

You can go for the low-fat options, but many of these have more sugar than you need — some with more than 4 grams per tablespoon.

What to use instead: Make your own healthier version of mayonnaise with extra-virgin olive oil and organic egg yolks — blend and apply wherever you’d like. Alternatively, you can try some other similar options that are healthier, like Greek yogurt (blended with lemon juice or spices) or avocados. You can also look for avocado oil-based mayonnaise products or hummus.

3. Barbecue Sauce

Unfortunately, most store-bought versions of this condiment are much like ketchup — they have too much sugar, and it’s often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Just two tablespoons can have more than 10 grams of sugar and 100 calories. Most versions contain less tomato and higher levels of high-fructose corn syrup than ketchup.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your sugar intake to only nine teaspoons a day for men and six teaspoons a day for women. One teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams, so with your serving of barbecue sauce, you could be using up more than twice your daily allowance.

What to use instead: Again, you can make your own and make it much healthier than anything you can buy. There are a number of recipes online — most involve a base of tomato sauce with vinegar, onion, spices and lemon juice. If you don’t have time for that, look for options that are lower in calories and sugar — organic options are a good place to start. You can also use spices on your meats to bring out the flavor or look for healthy marinades.

4. Ranch Dressing

It’s a favorite for many folks, but a store-bought creamy salad dressing takes a healthy salad and turns it into something that can quickly expand your waistline. Just one-quarter cup — about the amount most of us use on a salad — can pack up to 220 calories and 22 grams of fat. If you use it as a dip as well, it could be secretly sabotaging your weight without you even realizing it.

Many store-bought types also contain fattening high-fructose corn syrup, and if you try to go for the reduced-fat or fat-free options, you’ll probably get a lot more sugar (fat-free isn’t a good option anyway as you need some fat to help you absorb the nutrients in your salad). Did you find one that says it’s made with olive oil? Check the ingredient listing because sometimes manufacturers combine the olive oil with other more unhealthy oils like soybean oil and canola oil.

What to use instead: You can save a lot of calories by avoiding creamy dressings and going for the vinaigrette ones instead. If they don’t satisfy you, try hummus on your salad. It will save you calories and fat and will give you healthy fiber too. You can make your own healthy version of ranch dressing using buttermilk, spices and Greek yogurt.

5. Soy Sauce

The problem with this one is that it’s sky-high in sodium. Too much daily intake of sodium has been linked with high blood pressure and edema and, in some cases, to an increased risk of heart disease. Just two tablespoons of soy sauce deliver more sodium than the daily requirement for one day.

Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans and wheat and has been around for centuries. Although high-quality soy sauce uses natural fermentation, commercial products are often chemically fermented instead. The soybeans are mixed with hydrochloric acid, which can produce some unhealthy byproducts. Chemically fermented soy sauce has also been found to contain toxic substances called “chloropropanols,” one type of which has been linked to kidney damage and the development of tumors.

Soy sauce usually contains monosodium glutamate (MSG) as well, which is a flavor enhancer that has been linked with some health effects like headaches and heart palpitations in sensitive people.

What to use instead: If you can’t give up your soy sauce, look for naturally fermented, low-sodium options. Control your portion size — use as little as you can and still enjoy it.

6. Sour Cream

If you get natural sour cream, it’s not necessarily unhealthy, but it does contain a good amount of saturated fat. That means it can destroy your weight-loss goals if you’re not careful. One tablespoon of full-fat sour cream delivers about 3 grams of saturated fat and about 30 calories. That’s a low calorie number, but the problem is that most of us use a lot more than one tablespoon, especially on baked potatoes.

What to use instead: Greek yogurt is the perfect alternative to sour cream. It has about the same consistency and a similar taste, so you may hardly even notice the difference. In addition, it delivers healthy and immune-boosting probiotics, and a good serving of protein, which will help keep you fuller for longer.

7. Tartar Sauce

This is a natural condiment if you’re eating fish, and it can give it a nice, tangy flavor. But, unfortunately, it’s not any better than the other condiments listed here. Two tablespoons, which is a standard serving, has about 3 grams of sugar, 140 calories and 14 grams of fat.

Many store-bought options also include high-fructose corn syrup and so-called “natural flavors,” which are often chemicals that aren’t identified. Most are made similarly to mayonnaise — with soybean oil and added sugar.

What to use instead: You can flavor your fish with olive oil and/or herbs or make your own tartar sauce easily with egg yolks, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and seasonings.

7 Healthier Condiment Options

What condiments can you feel comfortable using? We have seven good options for you:

  1. Plain mustard: Don’t use honey mustard as it has too much sugar. Read your ingredient list and look for those types that include just a few ingredients like mustard seed, vinegar, salt and spices.
  2. Salsa: Look for high-quality options that are made with real ingredients like tomatoes, chopped vegetables and spices.
  3. Guacamole: It’s made from avocados, which are high in fat but the healthy kind of fat. Just don’t go overboard and use limited amounts.
  4. Pesto: Made from basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, this healthy condiment gives you a good supply of nutrients and healthy fats. It can be high in calories, however, so only use a little.
  5. Hummus: It’s made from chickpeas and garlic and is a healthy high-fiber option as long as it’s not loaded with too much sodium or sugar. Look for the simple, natural kinds.
  6. Hot sauce: If you can stand the heat, use this one more often. It contains capsaicin, a compound in hot peppers that’s been linked to lowered inflammation and a reduced risk of heart disease.
  7. Horseradish sauce: Again, if you like the kick, this makes an excellent alternative to sugary barbecue sauce. It has less sodium and sugar and contains healthy compounds linked to fighting cancer.