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Which condiment is healthiest? Dietitians share No. 1 pick and ones to avoid

It's hard to imagine hot dogs, hamburgers and fries without condiments, but they can sneakily add calories, fat, salt and sugar to a meal.
Sauce bottles above view, isolated on a blue background
Condiments can change the nutrition equation of a meal.Say-Cheese / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Condiments like mayonnaise, ketchup or mustard can be the perfect taste boosters for a casual meal. They’re kitchen staples, enhancing the taste of sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers and potatoes.

But besides adding flavor, condiments can also add salt, fat and sugar to healthy food if people pour or spread them on too enthusiastically, dietitians say.

There are countless condiments, classic and new, and the list keeps growing. Some Americans now use a half-dozen sauces at a meal, amounting to a “condiment invasion,” The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

“In general, I’m pro-condiment if it helps you eat healthier foods,” says registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, nutrition editor for TODAY.

“For example, if you only like tofu with soy sauce on it, then add the condiment to entice you to eat more of this healthy plant-based protein. Or if you like to make spicy cauliflower with hot sauce, go ahead and use it to eat more of this cruciferous veggie.”

But if you love mayonnaise and add a few tablespoons of it to a meal, it can drastically increase the calories and saturated fat, she warns.

“Condiments change the nutrition equation. Of course, how much you use is going to be the biggest game changer,” Lisa Young, a registered dietitian in New York and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” tells

“A little bit goes a long way.”

What are basic condiments?

A condiment is “something used to enhance the flavor of food,” especially a pungent seasoning, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition.

Popular choices in the U.S. include:

  • Mustard
  • Ketchup
  • Mayonnaise
  • Relish
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Salsa
  • Hot sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Vinegar
  • Wasabi or horseradish

Some people consider guacamole and hummus condiments, but foods that can be eaten on their own generally don’t count as a condiment, chefs told The Kitchn.

Condiment nutrition

Every condiment is different, so it’s important to read the label to check the serving size and nutrition facts, both dietitians advise.

Soy sauce and salsa are higher in salt, while mayonnaise is higher in calories, Rizzo says. Ketchup, barbecue sauce and relish all have added sugar.

You can taste the sweetness, but people don’t realize one tablespoon of ketchup has a teaspoon of sugar, Young notes. “Ketchup is something we put on so many foods. It becomes a quantity thing that you want to make sure that you watch,” she adds.

What are the benefits of condiments?

Besides being an easy way to boost taste, condiments can also make a meal more satisfying — potentially helping people to make better choices and eat less in the long run, Young notes.

“If you eat something you like, you’re satisfied and you stop. The thought is psychologically, you’re satisfied,” she says.

Steamed chicken is healthy but bland, so a bit of barbecue sauce will give it that flavor someone might need to choose it over a less nutritious option, Young points out.

Some condiments can add a little bit of nutrition: Salsa, for example, is made with tomatoes and onions — two vegetables that are beneficial to health, Rizzo points out.

What is the healthiest condiment?

Vinegar was the top pick of both dietitians. Drizzling it over beef, poultry or vegetables can boost taste without adding many calories.

“It doesn’t have any added salt, sugar or fat, and you don’t need a lot of it to get a really strong flavor,” Rizzo says.

Vinegar is fermented, good for the gut and adds a pungent taste, Young adds. Fruit vinegars made from wine or apple cider are rich in polyphenols — beneficial compounds found in plants — and organic acids, and can be a good source of antioxidants, studies have found.

Salsa was another top choice since it’s made from mostly tomatoes and plant-based ingredients, which means it has lycopene — a powerful antioxidant — and other health benefits, the dietitians say.

Mustard can also be a healthy pick, adding lots of flavor without many calories or sugar, Young says. But it can be salty, so people with high blood pressure should be careful about eating too much.

What is the least healthy condiment?

Mayonnaise, because it has a good amount of saturated fat, Rizzo says.

Since it’s high in fat and calories, mayonnaise would be the least healthy condiment to choose if you’re watching weight, Young adds. But if you’re a mayo fan, it’s OK to have it; just watch how much you eat.

“If you love mayo, have mayo, but then limit your guacamole” and other high-fat additions to a meal, she advises. “It’s not in the category of butter or cream.”

If sugar is a concern, ketchup and barbecue sauce are the worst condiments, both dietitians say. “The first ingredient on a lot of BBQ sauces is sugar,” Rizzo notes.

The main message is to use condiments wisely: Pick the one you like the best, add a bit to your meal and don’t go overboard. If you’re drowning your roasted veggies in condiments, you’re probably going way over the daily recommendation for salt, sugar and saturated fat, Rizzo cautions.

“It’s always best to look at the recommended serving size on the label. Sometimes you may want a little bit more than the recommendation and that’s fine, but don’t do it every time,” she says.