Condiments -- The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

06/11/2015 6:05 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Ketchup mustard and napkin dispenser

Is there anything more Australian than a good meat pie smothered with tomato sauce? Or some hot chips dunked into creamy aioli at your favourite pub? What about the sight of your three best mates -- tomato sauce, barbecue sauce and mustard -- lined up patiently in a row at your local sausage sizzle?

It's no secret us Aussies love a good condiment -- but are they good or bad for us?

"I wouldn’t say something is ‘bad’ but rather that it should be used sparingly or in small amounts rather than frequently," Sharon Natoli, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Food and Nutrition Australia, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Good condiments are those that add nutritional value to a meal, such as those containing sources of healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, almond or sunflower oil.

"Also, condiments that provide antioxidants and other health promoting substances from ingredients such as herbs, garlic, ginger and spices."

"It’s an interesting one," Lyndi Polivnick, aka The Nude Nutritionist told HuffPost Australia. "When it comes to condiments, if it makes it more likely you'll eat healthier things like vegetables and salads, then I think a little bit is totally okay.

"In saying that, some of them will be better for you than others, and it does come down to portion size."

So let's take a look at a household favourite -- good old tomato sauce (or ketchup to our American pals.)

"Tomato sauce has been shown to be a good source of lycopene which is an antioxidant shown to be particularly good for men’s health," Natoli said.

"A tablespoon of tomato sauce contributes quite low amounts of kilojoules and virtually no fat or protein, with small amounts of vitamin A. However it contains about one teaspoon of sugar and around 200mg of sodium.

"In the context of a total day's intake of food, these amounts are quite small but may need to be considered for those who are watching their sugar and salt intake.

"I think typically, with things like ketchup, you're eating them with unhealthy foods," said Polivnick. "I don’t have a massive issue if you were adding them to healthy foods -- but really, you're putting it on chips or burgers or sausage rolls.

"If it was a situation whereby your child won't eat their broccoli unless you include a little bit of tomato sauce -- I would be really supportive of something like that. If it's a situation where the trade-off was adding a bit of ketchup -- in my opinion it's totally worth the sugar sacrifice."

Barbecue sauce doesn't come off so lightly, with Natoli observing "barbecue sauce doesn’t have much going for it nutritionally speaking.

"It's made from a blend of fruit with thickeners, colours and various additives and contains very little nutritional value. It is 40 percent sugar -- so one tablespoon of sauce would contain two teaspoons of sugar. This is best kept to occasional use."

And those who love HP? Forget about it.

"There are no nutritional benefits to be gained from HP Sauce other than a very small contribution of tomato," Natoli said.

"This sauce contains multiple sources of sugar and provides one teaspoon of sugar in an average serving (15ml). On the other hand it is lower in sodium that some other condiments, as long as it is used in small amounts."

Moving away from the barbecue staples -- what about creamier condiments like mayonnaise and aioli?

"The ingredients used to make aioli and a traditional mayo are quite healthy as they include things such as olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, egg yolks and mustard," Natoli said.

"So make your own with these basic ingredients and go easy on any added salt.

"If buying pre-prepared varieties, check the ingredient list and look for those that contain the least amount of additives and fillers. Stick to around a tablespoon at a time, as if used in excess they can contribute high amounts of kilojoules which may be a problem is you are watching your weight."

Polivnick wasn't quite so comfortable.

"Mayo I'm not a fan of. It's quite high in saturated fats. I mean, you could use a bit of it to get the taste and flavour but there are so many better alternatives," he said.

"Extra virgin olive oil, for instance is slightly healthier. So for instance if you were going to a cafe and you wanted a salad, it's far preferable to order a salad with olive oil dressing than to have a Caesar salad with the creamier dressing."

Don't try this at home.

Both nutritionists agree that, when it comes to condiments, while mustard isn't exactly bursting with nutrients, it's not too bad.

"Mustard is OK," Polivnick said. "Though if you buy it from the store, make sure it doesn’t have a super high sugar level.

"When I think of what you eat mustard with -- say, a steak -- it's a pretty good choice. It's much better than a mushroom sauce or a creamy sauce, for instance."

"French, American, Australian, wholegrain and Dijon mustards are very similar nutritionally, in that they are all relatively low in kilojoules on a per serving basis, while making no major nutritional contribution," Natoli said.

"Mustard can therefore be a low kilojoule way of adding a flavour boost to a dish. The main variation is the amount of salt they contain with some being over 2000mg/100g, which is very high.

"Products such as Dijonnaise contain more vegetable oil and other ingredients with very little actual mustard seed, so it’s best to use the more traditional mustards which contain 20-30 percent mustard seeds."

Speaking of salt, what about soy sauce? (Not sure if this actually classifies as a condiment but while we're here...)

"Soy sauce contains very little nutritional value, but is rather a source of flavour," Natoli said.

"It is extremely high in sodium so it’s best to look for reduced sodium varieties (which are still high in sodium). While it is a fermented food, any beneficial bacteria will be destroyed by heat and not all commercial brands of soy sauce are fermented. It's best to buy a traditionally fermented soy sauce and add it in small amounts after cooking."

For Polivick, once again it's about looking what you're eating the sauce with that's important.

"Yes, soy sauce is high in salt, but take a look at the Japanese -- they eat lot of soy sauce and have the highest life expectancy and one of the lowest body fat ratios in the world," Polivnick said.

"The thing with soy sauce is it's so flavourful, you only need to use a little bit. Plus you tend to use it with healthier foods such as stir fries and sushi.

"I’m not too highly concerned about the salt level. I mean, the highest contributor of salt to the Australian diet is bread."

Chilli-lovers best proceed with caution when it comes to their spicy condiment of choice, as it really depends. Sweet chilli, for instance, isn't a great option.

"The main ingredient in sweet chili sauce is sugar, and it is around 60 percent sugar by weight," Natoli said.

"One tablespoon of sweet chili sauce provides two teaspoons of sugar and 200mg of sodium, so it is best used in small amounts. It is also relatively low in fresh chili so won’t have the same metabolism boosting benefits as fresh chili does.

"Due to the sugar content, it is also higher in kilojoules on a per serving basis compared to some of the other common condiments we've discussed."

However, straight-up chilli sauce gets a better wrap.

"This is a great choice for adding flavour to dishes, as chili increases your metabolism and can therefore assist with weight management (as part of an overall balanced diet)," Natoli said.

"Chilli also contains vitamin C and vitamin A with virtually no sugar or sodium."

"Hot sauces are one of the best," Polivnick added. "Just a little bit of chilli can increase your metabolism, which is great."

And finally -- what of tabasco?

"Tabasco sauce is a good choice for adding spice to a meal with virtually no kilojoules -- or anything else!" Natoli said. "It contains red pepper so will have a metabolism boosting affect after eating."

The overall verdict?

"I do think condiments tend to get a bad wrap in the nutrition world. People might look at someone and say, 'oh they eat way too many condiments, and that’s why they’re obese,' but I'd be more inclined to look at what foods they are pairing the condiments with," Polivnick said.

"Check the ingredient list and select those that mostly have ingredients that are foods you recognise," Natoli advised.

"Also check sodium and sugar levels in the nutrition information panel. Condiments with very high levels of sodium are those that contain more than 1000mg per 100g and for sugar, those containing more than 20g/100g are high."

In short, don't do this.

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