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Best vs. Worst Condiments for Health
September 15, 2022
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. 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 vinegars to various herbs, spices and seasonings. In fact, the word condiment comes from the Latin word condimentum (or condire), which means “to season.”
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 probiotics, antioxidants and more.
Ideally, all the condiments you consume meet this 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 30–60 calories per tablespoon or less.
Related: Margarine vs. Butter: Which Is the Healthier Option?
13 Best Condiments to Keep in Your Kitchen
What are spices and condiments that can be included in a healthy diet? Below is a list of condiments and spices that provide nutrients and are free of harmful additives. Many of the below are also very low in carbs, so are therefore a natural for a low-carb keto diet food list or the Paleo diet.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
Apple cider vinegar 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. Plus, ACV lowers blood pressure, improves diabetes and might even support weight loss.
Vinegar is one of the oldest condiments there is. It was was discovered more than 10,000 years ago! 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 just about every day. Try a little in salad dressing, smoothies, detoxifying tonic drinks, marinades and sauces.
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.
Whether you prefer Dijon, grainy or brown, mustard is easy to find. It can be used in various ways to add a bold “punch”of flavor and spice 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. They sometimes can be made with more sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) 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 like 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 are growing in popularity worldwide. They’re 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. It also has 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 capsaicin. This colorless plant compound gives hot peppers their signature heat. It can be used for pain reduction and digestive relief.
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. Raw Honey
Raw honey is a great natural sweetener. Why? There are some seriously impressive health benefits of raw honey. These include 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! 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 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 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. 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.
7. Olive Oil
Healthy fats 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.
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.
Glucosinolate compounds found in this root vegetable are responsible for its spicy flavor and are powerful in the fight against cancer. 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 isn’t “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. These healthy ingredients include nutrient-rich tomatoes, onion, jalapenos and spices. Try a tomato-based salsa over eggs, salads, tacos or fish for lots of flavor and even some extra heat.
What is hummus? It is a condiment that straddles the line between accompaniment and a real food, depending on how it’s used. Hummus ingredients like beans, olive oil, lemon and garlic have been shown to be heart-healthy and strong anti-inflammatory foods.
We know that inflammation is the root cause of many chronic diseases. 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.
Tamari is a soy sauce alternative that is gluten-free. It comes in liquid form. This condiment is popular for its smooth flavor and versatility, very similar to soy sauce. The lack of wheat isn’t the only thing that sets tamari apart from other similar condiments. It’s also less likely to contain additives, higher in protein and easier to cook with as well.
Tamari is produced through the fermentation of soybeans, but unlike regular soy sauce, it has little to no wheat added during this process. Adding a dash of tamari to your dishes can provide a salty, rich flavor to foods. It works especially well in stir-fries, dips, sauces and dressings. Because it has a good deal of salt, limit how much you use.
Here’s a condiment that you might be unfamiliar with but are sure to love if you enjoy spicy foods and Korean cuisine. 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 gochugaru (red chili powder), glutinous rice, salt, mejutgaru (fermented soybean powder) and yeotgireum (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.
Unfortunately, many store-bought condiments are loaded with sodium, sugar and refined oils. Here is a list of some of the worst ingredients in condiments you want 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 sodium nitrite
- Depending on your diet, flours like white wheat flour, corn flour, etc.
Examples of condiments that you want to leave on the supermarket shelf or send to the trash include:
1. Most Soy Sauces
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. However, 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 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 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. 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 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 Sweet and Tangy Barbecue Sauce is 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 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 ingredients label. What should be a straightforward condiment made with 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 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.
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 nutrients.
Related: How Much Sodium Per Day Do You Need?
Where to Find and How to Use
Uses of condiments can include:
- Making bland/plain foods (such as vegetables or whole grains) taste more appealing.
- Keeping your diet varied in terms of flavor, which means you get less bored with healthy, basic ingredients.
- Adding some healthy fat to your meals, this way you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer.
- Making foods taste a bit sweeter, spicier or tart, depending on your taste.
- Adding creaminess to recipes, such as when making dips or spreads.
- Topping sandwiches, burgers, etc., with a flavor-booster.
- Making dipping sauces for raw veggies.
- Creating marinades for proteins.
- Making a sauce to stir-fry veggies and protein in.
Look for healthy condiments in health food stores, at your farmers market or online (such as Amazon or Thrive Market, which stock difficult-to-find brands). When shopping in larger grocery stores, be sure to read ingredient labels carefully. The bigger brands tend to include cheaper, highly processed ingredients. Look for small companies that are organic, GMO-free and ideally local.
How to Make Your Own
Wondering how can you make a healthy vinegar sauce or homemade salad dressing if you want to skip the store-bought kinds? Here are recipes for making your own healthy condiments:
- Harissa Recipe (like a spicy ketchup paste made with garlic, hot chili peppers, oil, and spices like coriander and fennel that can be used on burgers, eggs, veggies, etc.)
- Homemade Hummus Recipe (try homemade hummus in any of these 29 Healthy Hummus Recipes)
- Cucumber Salsa or Cranberry Salsa (add to tacos, fajitas, eggs or even salad)
- Homemade Mayonnaise (or if you prefer, use extra virgin olive oil and cage-free organic egg yolks)
Risks and Side Effects
Remember that condiments are flavor enhancers. That means they shouldn’t be used in huge quantities or treated like staples of your diet. While certain condiments are considered healthy and contribute nutrients to your diet, it’s still best to use them in moderation. For example, the sodium in even healthy condiments still adds up, especially if you pile them on. Keep an eye on your serving. Stick to one to two teaspoons for burgers, sandwiches, salads, etc., or one to two tablespoons for dressings and marinades.
If you have an allergy, such as to gluten, dairy or soy, be careful when purchasing condiments. Read the ingredient label thoroughly, since many condiments can contain additives you wouldn’t expect.
- Condiments are flavor enhancers that add variety, spice, sweetness, heat and other tastes to foods.
- Uses of condiments include making bland/plain foods (such as vegetables or whole grains) taste more appealing, adding some healthy fat to meals, improving the texture of recipes, and making foods taste a bit sweeter, spicier or tart.
- Ideally, condiments should be low in sugar and salt/sodium and free of refined oils, GMO ingredients, additives, colors and many preservatives.
- What are examples of condiments? Healthy condiment examples include apple cider vinegar, mustards, tamari, salsa, hot sauce, raw honey, spices, hummus, olive oil, sauerkraut and others.
- On the other hand, here’s a brief list of condiments to avoid most ketchups, most soy sauces, most BBQ sauce, mayonnaise, light salad dressings, agave nectar and sweet relish.