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Things to know about condiments

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert gives the scoop on condiments.

Just imagine walking down the grocery aisle in a supermarket and wanting to add a bit a flavor or spice to your favorite foods; if you are like most of us you are probably scanning thousands of oddly shaped bottles and jars that are filled to the brim with what we call "condiments".

Condiments are basically substances that are used to enhance or improve flavor — and they range from the basic salt, pepper, sugar and other spices to the rare and exotic sauces.

Last year, according to Nielsen we Americans spent over $5.5 billion on products that range from the most flavorful chutneys and hot sauces to just plain old mayonnaise. What makes these shelves in the supermarket just so unique is that in many cases these products have a more regional (or ethnic) heritage and often are based on old family recipes.

Most of these products actually made it to the supermarket shelf built on passion — passion of the person who makes it — and passion from the consumer following that swears by it. Their labels are special, some are hand drawn, and many with stories that want to make this particular product a part of our own family.

The great news is that as we expand the senses of our palate, with just a little help from these jars and bottles we can make an ordinary meal into an extraordinary taste sensation.

But do you know how to choose which of these are best?

Mayonnaise is one of the most basic ingredients and is made primarily from vegetable oil and egg yolks and can then be flavored with salt, pepper, vinegar, lemon juice and even mustard. Mayonnaise is typically 70-80 percent fat — the lite versions use starches cellulose gel or other ingredients to reduce fat and maintain the texture of the full fat recipe. One of the most common mistakes is thinking that foods that contain mayonnaise if left out in the sun will spoil and make us ill — in fact its just the opposite — mayonnaise has a high pH (between 3.8 and 4.6) and is very acidic, which actually produces the opposite effect and prevents harmful bacteria from growing in the food.

Ketchup is one of the most common condiments and we use it on everything from fries to meatloaf. It is also the primary ingredient that is used in many home made BBQ sauces. Originally ketchup wasn't made with tomatoes — but rather from mushrooms or fish brine with spices then added. Ketchups are typically high in sodium (190 mg per tablespoon) and contain sugars (4 grams of sugar per tablespoon) So read the labels carefully. Heinz, the leading brand also introduced an "organic" version which uses organic tomatoes and sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. If you are a Heinz glass bottle user, here's a trick to get the ketchup out of the bottle faster...tap the Heinz 57 circle on the neck of the bottle...this actually applies the perfect G-forces to the neck and the ketchup will flow easier.

Mustards can vary both in taste and nutritional make up. A spicy brown mustard from example has 0 fat and no carbohydrates, while a "prepared" yellow mustard can have almost 8 grams of fat and over 7 grams of sugars.

Mustard will naturally separate over time, so always be sure to shake it thoroughly before using. Be sure to read the ingredients as some mustards can actually contain flour which may be an allergen for some.Salad dressings
Salad dressings are typically loaded with calories, fats, sugars, salt and artificial ingredients which is often times at odds with the nutritional desires of those who are regular fresh salad eaters. Reading labels carefully is a must on these products as the nutrition varies greatly. Often salad dressings that are sold in the produce or dairy departments under refrigeration are just marketing ploys to get a higher price. If the label says keep refrigerated you are getting what you are paying for — a freshly made and perishable product — if not you are just falling prey to great marketing. If you want to avoid high fructose corn syrup or any artificial or synthetic ingredients be sure to buy organic dressings.

Vinegar is produced by fermenting or oxidizing ethanol (from wine, cider, beer or any liquid which contains alcohol) and then creates acetic acid. The word "vinegar" actually is translated from the French as "sour wine". There are many varieties of vinegars, the top sellers are white, wine and balsamic, but on the shelves you'll find more variety made from fruits, rice, cane and some with flavors added. The plain vinegars typically have no calories and no fat.

White vinegar is made from either a distilled alcohol or just by adding acetic acid to water and is used both for food preparation and as an effective cleanser.

Wine vinegar is made from white or red wine — and just like wines, have a wide range of tastes and flavors. Typically less acidic. Look for the variety of wine used to produce it on the label.

Balsamic vinegar is aged, aromatic, rich, mellow, sweet and gaining in popularity. It's typically aged between 3 and 12 years and mostly produced in Modena, Italy. It is primarily produced from the Trebbiano variety of white grapes which is then aged in a series of different varieties of wood casks including oak, mulberry, cherry, juniper and ash.

Hot Sauces
Hot sauces are a lot more than just chili peppers in a bottle that are designed to burn the roof off your mouth. Many now combine a variety of peppers with other ingredients — sweet jams, sweet relishes and even candy. Last year we Americans bought almost $100 million of these and made one of the fastest growing segments of the condiment category. First rule is to read the label and determine what kind of chile pepper or extract is being used. Some products actually have a Scoville number — which is the rating of the heat of the sauce — the higher the number the hotter the chile. The habenero is the hottest pepper — 100 times hotter than a jalapeno.

Keep in mind the longer you cook a food with a hot sauce, the milder it will become. So if you want that heat — add the sauce after you cook your food and not in the preparation

And for those of you that actually do add a little too much hot sauce to your foods by mistake, the best way to cut the burn is to drink a glass of milk!

For more food and health information as well as recipes, check out Phil’s website at

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .