This article discusses ingredient lists of commercially prepared common American condiments and the potential health risks presented by them.
I occasionally comment on various “worst food lists” that appear in magazines and on websites. There is no shortage of bad foods to talk about these days, and we never seem to run out of lists.
But what about the foods Americans don’t often THINK about when inventorying their personal food choices—even though they’re eating them every day, one little dollop after another? I’m referring to condiments.
Condiments are usually given a free ride because, well, it’s only a spoonful. They’re typically overlooked, or brushed off as “harmless,” or eaten in such small quantities that their effects seem negligible.
Condiments can make bland foods taste better and good foods taste great. But they can also turn an otherwise nutritious meal into a metabolic nightmare, one tablespoon at a time.
Small, frequent doses of potentially harmful ingredients can be far from benign, having a cumulative biological effect. In fact, there is scientific evidence that more significant health effects may occur at low doses than high, especially for hormone-disrupting chemicals.1 It’s time to stop giving condiments a free pass!
Here, I’ll review five common American condiments that made their debut in a “worst of” list on the website OneResult:2
Ranch and blue cheese dressing
Steak sauce and barbeque sauce
Commercially prepared mayonnaise is indeed loaded with fats—and NOT the kind of fats that benefit you. Most prepared mayos are primarily GMO soybean oil, one of the most harmful oils you can eat but found extensively in processed foods.3
This type of oil, whether partially hydrogenated, organic, or made from newer soybean varieties modified in such a way as to not require hydrogenation, are highly processed and wreak chaos in your body at the cellular level, paving the way for problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to reproductive disorders and heart disease.
In addition to the trans fats created from hydrogenation, the majority of soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered and, as a result, are saturated with dangerous levels of the herbicide glyphosate, which has been linked to a growing list of serious health problems.
Even though you may not consider mayonnaise a sweet product, most commercial varieties contain high fructose corn syrup or other forms of fructose, which adds to the toxic load on your liver. If you think you can’t live without your mayo, consider using an organic variety made with olive oil. Or better yet, make your own mayo!
Mayonnaise is easy to make in a blender and, when made with healthful oils and fresh, organic eggs, without the artificial ingredients of the commercial variety, is actually good for you! If you make your own, it won’t last as long but it will taste MUCH better, and you just make smaller batches. Good mayo requires only a few basic ingredients: olive oil, egg yolks, vinegar or lemon juice, mustard, and a little sea salt. You’ll find a nice recipe at the Hungry Mouse website.4 Here are examples of the typical mayonnaise on the market. You will want to steer clear of these types of products by either finding organic alternatives, or making your own.
#2: Sour Cream
Just as with mayonnaise, sour cream can be a delicious and nutritious adjunct to your meal or a toxic white glop—depending on what goes into it. If you make your own cultured soured cream from quality ingredients, it’s not going to do your body any harm and will even provide some excellent nutrition when consumed in moderation. Saturated fats and animal fats are NOT the bane of your existence, contrary to what you’ve heard.
That said, the little tubs you find at most grocery stores are not healthful, but unfortunately, those are what most Americans consume. Here’s an ingredient list from a typical commercial sour cream label:5
“Cultured Pasteurized Cream and Milk, Whey, Modified Corn Starch, Sodium Phosphate, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Calcium Sulfate, Cultured Dextrose, Locust Bean Gum, Potassium Sorbate (As Preservative)”
As you can see, there are lots of fillers and preservatives and not much in the way of REAL food. Not only that, but non-organic dairy products often contain dangerous genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.
RBGH is the largest selling dairy animal drug in America. But it is banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and in the 27 countries of the European Union because of its risks to human health. IGF-1 in rBGH increases your risk for breast cancer by promoting conversion of normal breast tissue cells into cancerous ones.
Despite decades of evidence about the dangers of rBGH, the FDA still maintains it’s safe for human consumption and ignores scientific evidence to the contrary. The only way to avoid rBGH is to look for products labeled “rBGH-free” or “No rBGH.”
Culturing your own sour cream using lacto-fermentation culture, starting with fresh, raw organic cream, is not difficult and has the added benefit of giving you natural probiotics, which are so critical for your immune system. These probiotics are all but killed off in commercial processing, if they were ever present to begin with. High-quality Greek-style yogurt is another good alternative, which you can also make at home using a starter culture. For more info on making your own cultured sour cream, visit Cultures for Health.6 Here are examples of the typical sour cream on the market. You will want to steer clear of these types of products by either finding organic alternatives, or making your own.
#3: Ranch and Blue Cheese Dressing
If you read the ingredient list, typical processed ranch and blue cheese dressings are unnatural concoctions bearing little resemblance to food. Your digestive tract may not even recognize this as food, but instead react to it like a foreign invader, to be attacked like any other bodily threat. Consider this list of ingredients in Dean’s Ranch Dip:
“Soybean Pasteurized “blend” of skim milk, reduced minerals whey, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, dehydrated onion, sour cream flavor (cream, nonfat milk, whey, whey protein concentrate, cultured nonfat buttermilk (skim milk, cultures), maltodextrin, salt, autolyzed yeast extract, natural flavors, monosodium glutamate, sodium citrate, sour cream cultures, lactic acid, food starch-modified, gelatin, dextrose, dehydrated garlic, vinegar powder (maltodextrin, corn starch-modified, white distilled vinegar), monosodium glutamate, citric acid, sodium hexametaphosphate, locust bean gum, lecithin, spices, potassium sorbate, guar gum, whey, whey protein concentrate, carrageenan, acetic acid, propylene glycol alginate, artificial colors (FD &C Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine) and FD & C Yellow No. 6)”
As you can see, soybeans are at the forefront, which we’ve already discussed. And yes, monosodium glutamate is listed TWICE… and once is bad enough!
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer hidden in thousands of foods you and your family regularly eat, and it’s one of the worst food additives ever created. MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, potentially causing brain damage and triggering learning disabilities. Common adverse effects linked to regular MSG consumption include: obesity, eye damage, headaches, fatigue and disorientation, depression, rapid heartbeat, tingling and numbness.
MSG can be found in nearly all processed foods because it hides under other names, such as flavorings, seasonings, soy protein, stocks and broths, malt extract, carrageenan, and corn starch, to name just a few.
Food dyes are another type of additive to watch out for. Every year, food manufacturers pour 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes into US foods. According to a Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) report, some of the most commonly used food dyes may be linked to multiple forms of cancer, along with hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children.
As of July 2010, most foods in the EU that contain artificial food dyes come with warning labels, and the British government has also asked that food manufacturers remove most artificial colors from foods. In the US, however, a similar measure has not been taken.
So what’s the solution? Make your own salad dressing. That way, you have complete control over what goes into it. You can use homemade yogurt as a delicious base for any dressing and add in your own fresh herbs from the garden. Once you’ve mastered mayo and sour cream, the sky’s the limit when it comes to healthful dressings, sauces and dips. Here are examples of the typical ranch and blue cheese dressing on the market. You will want to steer clear of these types of products by either finding organic alternatives, or making your own.
If you use commercially prepared ketchup on your food, you might as well be starting an IV of high fructose corn syrup, because that’s primarily what glugs out of the bottle. Most bottled ketchups consist basically of overcooked tomatoes, water, and a large bolus of sugar, usually as some form of genetically engineered corn syrup. Many brands also add “natural flavorings,” which are really flavor-boosting chemicals, one being MSG. Here is a fairly typical ingredient list, this one from Hunt’s Regular Ketchup:
“Tomato concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, distilled vinegar, corn syrup, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, natural flavors”
Due to growing consumer concerns over the health problems of high fructose corn syrup, ConAgra, manufacturer of Hunt’s Ketchup, removed it from their ketchup in 2010. However, their reformulated product was not a big hit, so they added it back in two years later. It’s all about the bottom line!7
Just one tablespoon of commercially prepared ketchup typically contains four grams of sugar. And many people consume much more than one tablespoon at a time, which quickly builds up your daily sugar load. Like ketchup, sugar (especially HFCS) is added to nearly all processed foods, along with a lot of sodium and other flavor enhancers, and it doesn’t take too long to exceed your maximum daily fructose limit (25 grams or less).
Ketchup is another condiment you can make in your own kitchen, which gives you the advantage of controlling the amount and type of sweetener, as well as the other ingredients. Homemade ketchup is much better in every respect than anything that’s been bottled commercially.8 Or, try fresh salsa instead of ketchup. Remember, you can cut down drastically on the amount of sugar a recipe calls for, as well as substituting more healthful sweeteners. Honey and/or stevia, or even a mixture of the two, are good choices.
If you are simply unable to make your own ketchup and feel you cannot live without it, I did find one organic brand that has half the usual amount of sugar and no HFCS. Here is the ingredient list for Annie’s Naturals:9 Don’t assume that just because a commercial ketchup is organic, it’s low in sugar. For example, Meijer Organics Ketchup10 has four grams of sugar per tablespoon, just like most of the non-organic brands. Here are examples of the typical ketchup on the market. You will want to steer clear of these types of products by either finding organic alternatives, or making your own.
#5: Barbeque Sauce and Steak Sauce
Like the rest of the condiments already discussed, steak and barbeque sauces may contain a mélange of unsavory ingredients. For example, take a look at the “granddaddy” of them all, A1 Steak Sauce:11
“Tomato puree (water, tomato paste), distilled vinegar, corn syrup, salt, raisin paste, crushed orange puree, spices and herbs, dried garlic and onion, caramel color, potassium sorbate, xanthan gum”
Again, you see our nemesis—the little darling of the food industry—corn syrup (which in all likelihood is genetically engineered corn). A1 contains two grams of sugar per tablespoon. It also contains xanthan gum, made by fermenting corn sugar with the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. This gummy substance has a strange viscosity—it thickens and stabilizes a mixture, but when shaken or poured, it behaves more like a liquid.12 Xanthan gum is made using carbohydrates from corn, wheat, dairy, or soy, all of which are considered allergens, so I recommend avoiding this ingredient.
As an aside, also steer clear of pet foods that contain xanthan gum, as your pets can suffer negative health effects from it as well.
There are some low to moderate health concerns about potassium sorbate, a preservative, which you can review in detail on the EWG website.13 It’s best to avoid this additive, especially if you have any tendency toward allergies. There is some evidence for reproductive system toxicity, although much more research is needed. And caramel color, as harmless as the name sounds, can actually conceal MSG and two other potentially dangerous chemicals, 2-methylimidazole (2-MI) and 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), both of which have been found to promote lung, liver, and thyroid tumors in laboratory rats and mice.
Other bottled meat sauces contain a variety of agents and dyes that really shouldn’t be in food. For example, look at the ingredient list for Open Pit Original BBQ Sauce—there is just about NOTHING in here you should eat!
“High fructose corn syrup, water, distilled vinegar, tomato puree (water, tomato paste), salt, modified food starch, 2% or less of: soybean oil, hydrolyzed corn and soy protein, spice, onion powder, dehydrated garlic, artificial tomato flavor, natural and artificial flavor, Yellow No. 6 dye, Red No. 40, Blue No. 1, titanium dioxide, caramel color”
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, make your own sauces at home! Food Network14 has a great looking recipe for a steak sauce flavored with applesauce, raisins and garlic (leave out the corn syrup), but I’m sure you can find other yummy recipes as well. Two Dogs in the Kitchen has even posted a recipe for an A1 “taste-alike” you can make in your own kitchen. Here are examples of the typical barbeque sauce and steak sauce on the market. You will want to steer clear of these types of products by either finding organic alternatives, or making your own.
Make Your Condiments From REAL Food
I have discussed five common condiments with health impairing ingredient lists, but there are many more examples that can be found. Those five should be enough to demonstrate that the majority of commercially prepared condiments are not real food but rather a blend of chemicals engineered to taste good, induce cravings, and make money—but offer you nothing in terms of nutrition. They are loaded with excess sugar (especially fructose) and salt, preservatives, dyes, texture and flavor enhancers, and a good deal of genetically engineered ingredients, ALL of which should be avoided whenever possible.
But the good news is, you don’t have to give up condiments altogether!
With a little kitchen wisdom and creativity, you can come up with your own recipes that taste far better than their chemical-laden grocery store counterparts. Provided you make your condiments from high-quality ingredients and eat reasonable portions, they can be an acceptable part of your overall nutrition plan, enhancing your health as well as your mealtime enjoyment.