Adding certain condiments to your meals can be a great way to kick up the flavor and make basic, healthy foods tastier and more enjoyable. However, not all condiments belong in your refrigerator or pantry. Many are surprisingly loaded with empty calories, sugar and artificial ingredients.
When you take a look at the nutritional content of some popular condiments, it’s clear that some are far better choices than others. Here’s what you need to know about the best and worst condiments to keep on hand.
What Are Condiments?
The definition of a condiment is: something used to enhance the flavor of food. Condiments include everything from various herbs, spices and seasonings to vinegars and sauces.
In fact, the word condiment comes from the Latin word condimentum (or condire), which means “to season.” (1)
What are the most common condiments, including both those that are considered “healthy” and those that aren’t?
Examples of common condiments include: ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise and salad dressings. Some of the attributes that make certain condiments better choices than others include the amount of sodium/salt, sugar, artificial ingredients and preservatives they are made with. Plus, some of the best condiments provide real nutrient value in the form of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and probiotics.
Ideally, all healthy condiments you consume should meet these criteria (or close to it):
- No added sugar and low carbohydrates (less than five grams per tablespoon)
- Low sodium (less than 70 milligrams per tablespoon)
- No trans-fat/hydrogenated oils
- No artificial sweeteners
- Zero or very few preservatives
- No added colors
- Other than oils, most condiments tend to be pretty low in calories. Unless you use olive oil or salad dressing, look for those with 30 to 60 calories per tablespoon or less.
9 Condiments That Deserve a Place in Your Kitchen
Mustard is one of the most popular condiments worldwide, for good season. Mustard seeds provide numerous phytonutrients and lots of flavor with hardly any calories at all. The ancient Chinese considered mustard seeds to be a natural aphrodisiac. Since then, mustard has been shown to offer protection against tumor growth and DNA or cell mutation. (2)
Whether you prefer Dijon, grainy or brown, mustard is easy to find. It can be used in various ways to add a bold kick of flavor and spice to many homemade meals. Try whisking some into salad dressing, rubbing some onto proteins before cooking as part of a marinade or serving it alongside as a dripping sauce.
However, be on the lookout for sweet honey mustards. Many of them can be made with more sugar or high fructose corn syrup than actual mustard seeds.
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is a favorite ingredient among many healthy cooks for a variety of reasons. It’s fermented and contains probiotics. ACV has a special compound called acetic acid that has antibacterial properties. It can help treat acid reflux and other digestive issues. Additionally, ACV help lower blood pressure, improves diabetes and might even support weight loss.
Vinegar is one of the oldest condiments there is. It was discovered more than 10,000 years ago! Because it provides a strong acidity, it’s beneficial for helping balance the body’s pH level and boosting digestive health.
And considering how many ways there are to use apple cider vinegar, you can sneak some into your routine just about every day. Try a little in salad dressing, smoothies, marinades or sauces.
3. Hot Sauce
If you love some spice with your meat, beans or eggs, nothing beats a good hot sauce. Spicy flavored foods like peppers are known to increase the body’s fat-burning abilities since they provide the compound capsaicin. This colorless plant compound gives hot peppers their signature heat. It can be used for pain reduction and digestive relief. (4)
Capsaicin is concentrated in the pepper’s inner tissue that holds the seeds. It is linked to benefits that include reducing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, weight gain and cancer. Look for a quality brand that doesn’t contain artificial colors, preservatives, hydrogenated oils or flavors. (5)
Want an easy way to kick up the flavor in mashed potatoes, soups, dips or sauces? Try adding a small touch of horseradish. Its strong spice is a good indication of its nutrient content.
Horseradish has been shown to have certain antioxidant compounds that can help stop tumor growth. It’s also an excellent sinus infection natural remedy. With under 10 calories per tablespoon and no added sugar in most brands, a little goes a long way in adding some punch to all sorts of meals and dishes.
5. Olive Oil
Healthy fats, like olive oil actually help you properly absorb fat-soluble nutrients (like vitamin A, E and K) from your salads and healthy recipes. They also make you feel fuller.
By making your own full-fat dressing, marinade, etc., with olive oil, you skip lots of artificial preservatives, sodium and sugar hiding in bottled salad dressings.
6. Spices of All Kinds
Spices are beaming with plant-derived phytochemicals and really belong in a category all their own. Entire books are filled with the health benefits of various spices used around the world! Some of the basics to definitely keep at home, due to their ease of use and enormous beneficial properties, include turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, sea salt, garlic, ginger, oregano and rosemary.
Turmeric has gained enormous attention over the past couple decades due to its strong anti-inflammatory and detoxification abilities. Together with black pepper, its phytonutrients are even more bioavailable. They’re capable of helping improve immunity, heart health and liver function. Turmeric can also help reduce arthritis symptoms and aid in joint and muscle tissue recovery.
Garlic, cinnamon and ginger are also popular ingredients used worldwide that have natural anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties. Cooked or raw garlic is used to improve heart health, lower cholesterol and help prevent blood clots.
Cinnamon helps control blood sugar regulation and reduces pain in joints and muscle tissue.
High-quality sea salt provides dozens of important trace minerals. It also can bring out the flavors of your favorite healthy foods like proteins and veggies.
Oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme are staple spices in the Mediterranean and Middle East, where they have been used medicinally for centuries as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and healers of respiratory, digestive and hormonal issues.
While fresh, homemade salsas are your best option to reduce sodium and preservatives, there are many store-bought brands available that feature basic, quality ingredients. These healthy ingredients include nutrient-rich tomatoes, onion, jalapenos and spices. It can be paired with almost any food or dish and is great served over eggs, salads, tacos or fish.
Hummus is a condiment that overlaps between accompaniment and a real food, depending on how it’s used. With ingredients like beans, olive oil, lemon and garlic, hummus has been shown to be heart-healthy and strong anti-inflammatory foods.
Use hummus in all the expected places, like on salads or sandwiches. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and throw some into an omelet or homemade savory muffin recipe. Look for a brand that uses all-natural ingredients, including chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and sea salt.
Here’s a condiment that you might be unfamiliar with but are sure to love if you enjoy spicy foods. Gochujang, or red chili paste, is a fermented condiment that is frequently used in Korean cuisine. It is known for its distinct flavor. It is equal parts sweet, savory and spicy.
Typical ingredients used to make this red chili paste include red chili powder, glutinous rice, salt, fermented soybean powder and barley malt powder.
Benefits associated with the ingredients in gochujang include stimulating fat loss, helping prevent heart disease, increasing metabolism, decreasing blood sugar and fighting inflammation thanks to the supply of antioxidants.
7 Condiments that YOU Should Do Without
Unfortunately, many store-bought condiments are loaded with sugar, sodium and refined oils. Here is a list of some of the worst ingredients used in the condiments that you need to avoid:
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Added sugar (which hides under dozens of different names) in the form of cane sugar, fructose, barley malt, corn syrup, rice and other syrups, dextrose, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, glucose solids, and many others
- Refined vegetable oils, like safflower, sunflower, corn oil, etc.
- Artificial sweeteners
- Sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- Sodium nitrate or nitrite
- Refined flours like white, wheat or corn flour.
Examples of condiments that you want to leave on the supermarket shelf or send to the trash include:
1. Most Soy Sauces
Although It’s true that soy sauce isn’t high in calories or sugar, it’s loaded with sodium, MSG and of course soy too! Soy is one of the world’s most commonly genetically modified foods, especially soy grown in the U.S.
Although many people use small amounts of soy sauce, when consumed in large quantities it can interfere with digestion and supply enough soy to mess with hormones.
Tamari and liquid aminos or coconut aminos make great substitutes. You can also look for organic, low-sodium soy sauce. Use that instead of soy sauce for adding Asian, soy-like flavors to meals without any of the soy dangers or hidden gluten.
2. Store-Bought Ketchup
Ketchup is relatively low in calories, with just about 20 per tablespoon. The real problem is that it’s usually loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients. A better option is organic ketchup that’s low in sugar, only using one tablespoon at a time.
Better yet, make your own ketchup from scratch! Ketchup is simple to make using fresh tomatoes and basic spices. Plus, it adds a small amount of the antioxidant lycopene to your meals from the tomatoes.
3. Agave Nectar
Agave Nectar is a sweet syrup made from the agave tequiliana plant. This might make it sound like it’s a natural, healthier option over cane sugar, but a lot of the marketing hype of agave is now being second-guessed.
Originally directly marketed as a good choice for diabetics because it’s supposedly lower on the glycemic index, we know now that agave is no healthier than other processed sweeteners and isn’t any lower in sugar.
Agave is manufactured using a highly processed procedure that basically strips the naturally occurring agave juices and along with it nearly all nutritional value. It also contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup.
That makes it extremely dangerous, especially for those with blood sugar problems! HFCS, and too much added sugar in general, is considered a pain-triggering food because it can increase inflammation. Consuming excess sugar provides you with lots of empty calories, provides no nutritional value, can spike blood sugar, and puts you at increased risk of health problems like obesity and diabetes.
4. Store-Bought BBQ Sauce
Barbecue sauce might taste great on chicken, ribs and salads, but it also sets you back about six grams of sugar for a very small one- to two-tablespoon serving.
Homemade barbecue sauce can be made using several healthy ingredients like onions, garlic, Worcestershire, mustard and molasses. However, when cane sugar, honey and ketchup are also in the mix in store-bought kinds, the sugar adds up quickly.
To get all the same flavor without all that sugar, consider making your own with just a small amount of raw honey, or compare brands when shopping and look for a low-sugar option.
Using just one to two tablespoons at once isn’t a deal breaker, but more than that can add lots of unnecessary sugar and sodium to an otherwise healthy meal.
5. Sweet Relish
Take a look at most store-bought sweet relishes and you might be surprised to see artificial coloring, several preservatives and lots of sugar on the ingredients label.
What should be a straightforward condiment made with nutritious cucumbers, onion, vinegar and a little sweetener usually turns out to have more than 10 processed ingredients. Make your own instead, or buy an organic brand that’s low in sugar.
This one might seem obvious, but mayonnaise actually needs some explaining. It’s not even the fat content of mayonnaise that’s so much the issue (that comes from egg yolks and oil). Rather, it’s the type of oil used in the vast majority of store-bought mayos. Most mayonnaise sold in grocery stores uses refined and processed vegetable oils — like sunflower, safflower or canola oil.
Instead, try making your own mayo using extra virgin olive oil and cage-free, organic egg yolks. This can easily be done in minutes using a blender. It tastes just as great on tuna, eggs or homemade slaw!
7. Light Salad Dressings
When one thing is taken out (fat), another thing must be added (sugar, sodium or artificial ingredients) in order to enhance the flavor and texture.
Light salad dressings might sound like good options since they cut calories and fat from oil, but using real, quality oils like extra virgin olive oil on your salads is nothing to worry about and actually provides important, healthy nutrients.