You know what they say, “variety is the spice of life,” right? Adding certain condiments to your meals can be a great way to kick up the flavor of basic, healthy foods — making them more tasty, appetizing and enjoyable. But not all condiments belong in your refrigerator or pantry; many are surprisingly loaded with calories, sugar, artificial ingredients and sodium.
When you take a look at the nutritional content of some popular condiments, it’s clear that some are far better choices than others, so here’s what you need to know about the best and worst condiments to keep on hand.
The 10 Best Condiments to Keep in Your Kitchen
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is one of my favorite ingredients for a variety of reasons: It’s fermented and contains probiotics, has a special compound called acetic acid that has antibacterial properties, can help cure acid reflux or digestive issues, lowers blood pressure, improves diabetes, and might even support weight loss. Vinegar itself was discovered more than 10,000 years ago, and because it provides a strong acidity, it’s beneficial for balancing the body’s pH level and boosting digestive health. Considering how many ways there are to use apple cider vinegar, you can sneak some into your routine every day; try a little in salad dressing, smoothies, detoxifying tonic drinks, marinades and sauces.
Mustard is one of the most popular condiments worldwide, and 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, and since then mustard has been shown to offer protection against tumor growth and DNA or cell mutation.
Whether you prefer Dijon, grainy or brown, mustard is easy to find and can be used in various ways to add bold punch to homemade meals. Try whisking some into salad dressing, rubbing some onto proteins before cooking as part of a marinade or serving it along with Sweet Potato Fries. One thing to be wary of is sweet honey mustards, which can sometimes be made of more sugar than actual mustard seeds.
3. Natto or Miso
While I’m not a big fan of unfermented soy products, including processed soy patties or most soy sauces — soy that is bad for you — fermented soy condiments including tamari, miso, natto or tempeh can be used to add salty flavor to recipes with much less risk. Fermenting edamame beans (soybeans) reduces their antinutrient content and produces beneficial probiotics in the process.
Natto and miso are traditional Japanese fermented foods that have been growing in popularity worldwide, most commonly used to make miso soup or to add flavor to sauces. Miso is a higher sodium food (one teaspoon of miso often contains 200–300 milligrams of sodium) but usually still has less than soy sauce and additional benefits like antioxidant support. Both are probiotic foods high in nutrients like vitamin K, linked to heart health and blood sugar control, and are even a good source of protein.
4. Hot Sauce
If you love some spice with your meat, beans or eggs, nothing beats a good hot sauce. Spicy flavored foods like peppers — and other fat-burning foods — are known to increase the body’s fat-burning abilities since they provide the compound called capsaicin. This colorless plant compound gives hot peppers their signature heat and can be used for pain reduction and digestive relief.
Capsaicin is concentrated in the pepper’s inner tissue that hold the seeds and 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 or flavors.
5. Raw Honey
Raw honey is my natural sweetener of choice, considering there are some seriously impressive health benefits of raw honey, including: reducing allergies, improving acne, relieving cold and flu symptoms, improving digestion, and reducing infections or viruses. It’s also known for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, not to mention it tastes great! Just like with all natural sweeteners you should be using, use raw honey in moderation, about one tablespoon per day or less. Try it drizzled on fruit, in homemade desserts or even in marinades and dressings.
6. Spices of All Kinds
Spices are beaming with plant-derived phytochemicals and really belong in a category all their own. Entire books have been 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 and capable of helping improve immunity, heart health and liver function; reducing arthritis symptoms; and aiding in joint or 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 benefits blood sugar control and reduces pain in joints or muscle tissue.
High-quality sea salt provides dozens of important trace minerals and 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.
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.
Real, refrigerated sauerkraut is a traditional fermented food that supplies gut-friendly probiotics. Probiotic foods, including cultured vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, produce live active cultures that help increase good bacteria in the gut. Good bacteria have enormous benefits, including appetite control, better digestion and improved immune function, brain function and hormonal control — for instance, you can treat candida with fermented vegetables. Canned sauerkraut won’t be “alive” with probiotics, so make sure you look for a chilled kind that indicates it hasn’t been pasteurized.
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 like nutrient-rich tomatoes, onion, jalapenos and spices. Try my Chunky Tomato Salsa over eggs, salads, tacos or fish for lots of flavor and even some extra heat.
A staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries for centuries, hummus straddles the line between being a condiment and a real food. Hummus ingredients like beans, olive oil, lemon and garlic have been shown to be heart-healthy and strong anti-inflammatory foods, and we know that inflammation is the root cause of many chronic diseases. Use hummus in all the expected places, like on salads or sandwiches, but don’t be afraid to mix it up and throw some into an omelette or homemade savory muffin recipe.
The 7 Worst Condiments that Belong in the Trash!
1. Soy Sauce
It might surprise you to see soy sauce on a list of supposedly healthy foods you should never eat. It’s true that soy sauce isn’t high in calories or sugar, but it’s loaded with sodium 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 a great substitute, or else 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, but 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, or better yet make your own Homemade 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
Produced in Mexico, 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, which makes it extremely dangerous, especially for those with blood sugar problems!
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 Sweet and Tangy Barbecue Sauce is made using several healthy ingredients like onions, garlic, Worcestershire, mustard and molasses — but 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 sodium and sugar 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 ingredient label. What should be a straightforward condiment made using nutritious cucumber, 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 that’s so much the issue (that comes from egg yolks and oil), but rather the type of oil used in 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 and tastes just as great on tuna, eggs or Homemade Coleslaw!
7. “Light” Salad Dressings
When one thing is taken out (fat), another thing must be added (sugar, sodium or artificial ingredients). Light salad dressings might sound like a good option 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. Healthy fats actually help you absorb fat-soluble nutrients from your salads and healthy recipes, while also making you feel fuller. By making your own full-fat dressing, you’ll skip lots of artificial preservatives, sodium and sugar hiding in bottled salad dressings.