Condiments can be the perfect topping to your favorite sandwich, salad, or taco. But you can undermine a nutritious diet by adding too many dollops of ketchup, mustard, or other favorite seasoning.
Condiments sneak in more fat, sugar, sodium, and calories than you might realize. And the result can create more than weight gain: Excess sodium is a major culprit in raising high blood pressure. Current U.S. health and nutrition guidelines recommend that you consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, or about one teaspoon's worth of salt, and just 1,500 mg a day for older people and those with high blood pressure.
Because most Americans get a lot of hidden salts in their diet—from canned soups and vegetables to many processed and frozen foods, it's important to make sure that condiments aren't pushing your salt intake past the recommended limit. By reading labels and limiting quantities, you can enjoy condiments without doing your diet much damage.
Here's what you need to know about the most common condiments in your refrigerator and pantry:
Ketchup. Ketchup is a tomato-based condiment that includes spices and flavorings, but also sugar. Advantages: It's rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage and may help ward off some cancers. It's also a tasty topping that complements foods from potatoes and burgers to eggs. Drawbacks: It's loaded with sodium—about 190 mg per tablespoon.
Mustard. This familiar yellow condiment comes in many flavors and contains ground mustard seeds and varying spices. The advantages: It's low in calories and one of the lower-sugar and lower-sodium condiment choices. The bright yellow mustard (the kind you usually get with hot dogs at the ballpark) is also a central source of turmeric in the American diet. Turmeric, which contains curcumin, has anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting qualities and may play a role in preventing or treating Alzheimer's disease, according to recent medical studies. The drawbacks: Some brands contain up to 165 mg of sodium per tablespoon, so you need to keep track of how much you're using.
Relish. A popular topping, relish may contain pickles, horseradish sauce, high fructose corn syrup, seasonings, and preservatives. The advantage: It's a tasty way to spice up meats and even salads. The drawbacks: It's high in sugar and sodium, and many varieties contain artificial colorings.
Mayonnaise. Mayo can moisten sandwiches or serve as a base for dips and sauces. It contains eggs, oil, salt, sugar, and lemon juice or vinegar. The advantages: It's a versatile condiment. The drawbacks: A serving contains 1.5 grams of saturated fat and plenty of calories, so make a little go a long way. Try reduced-fat or fat-free versions.
Salsa. You'll find many flavors of this traditional Mexican topping, but it typically contains tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, garlic, and salt. The advantages: It's a mostly vegetable-based condiment, helping you meet your daily veggie intake. Plus, the tomatoes are rich in lycopenes. The drawback: Many jarred commercial varieties of salsa tend to be high in sodium, so check labels carefully before buying.
Barbecue sauce. Whether you like to slather it on ribs or your favorite burger, BBQ sauce is often a summer cookout staple. It often contains corn syrup, tomato paste, molasses, salt, and other seasonings. The advantage: It gives a tasty sweet and spicy flavor to meat. The drawbacks: Many brands are high in corn syrup or other sugars and calories. Check labels to look for lower-calorie and lower-sugar options.
Salad dressings. Even if your salad is chock-full of leafy greens and brightly colored vegetables, it can take an unhealthy turn with the wrong dressing. Ingredients vary based on the type you choose. The advantages: Oil-based dressings like vinaigrettes often contain canola or olive oil, which are a good source of healthy fats and also help your body better absorb the many nutrients you're getting from your salad. The drawbacks: If you opt for a thick and creamy dressing (think creamy Caesar and ranch), it's probably packed with saturated fat and calories.
Want some healthier ways to flavor your food? Make your own salsa by chopping up tomatoes, onions, garlic, and hot peppers for a sodium-free kick. Use balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar to drizzle on your favorite salad and as a marinade for chicken, pork, and lean steak. These vinegars offer plenty of flavor with no fat, few calories, and little to no sodium.