America's Favorite Sauces: A Dietitian's Perspective

Have a fridge door full of sauces? You’re not the only one. Many people rely on them to quickly add flavor to meals. As a bonus, many sauces have tiny amounts of micronutrients, like vitamin C, that enhance the nutritional quality of your meal. However, a sauce's quality and nutritional benefits vary greatly depending on the ingredients. Some sauces can be very high in added sugars and salt, which are safe to enjoy in moderation but may not be the best choice if you have dietary restrictions. Keep reading to learn more about popular sauces in the U.S., how to pick healthy options, and how to make your own tasty versions at home.

What are the most common sauces in the U.S.?

You’ll probably find these three staple sauces in most U.S. households: ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. Not only are these used as condiments, but they’re also popularly used as ingredients for other recipes, like salad dressings or more complex sauces. For example, mayonnaise is the base for creamy coleslaw dressing, and ketchup can be used to start barbecue sauce or French salad dressing.

Another notable condiment in the U.S. is hot sauce, made with high-heat chili peppers. A new TV series, Superhot, showed the growing fanbase behind all things spicy and reported that the market for hot sauce is already valued at over two billion dollars. One thing is sure: Americans like sauce, but they love hot sauce.

Below are some nutritional properties of these popular sauces.

Ketchup

Historically, ketchup was high in added sugars, but the formula has changed over the last 10 years. Now, one tablespoon of this famous red sauce contains only 3.6 g of total sugars (including natural sugars from tomatoes.)

Mayonnaise

The fat content in mayonnaise adds to the creamy texture. Including some fat in your meal is essential to help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, but you don't need a lot. One tablespoon of original mayo has 10 g of fat, but a modified low-fat version only has 3.5 g.

Mustard

This tangy, bright, yellow condiment isn’t exceptionally high in nutrients. It contains small amounts of vitamins A and C, which have antioxidant properties that contribute to your health. Some brands may have higher sodium levels, but it varies significantly per product.

Barbecue sauce

The nutritional properties of barbecue sauce vary immensely per recipe. The key nutrients to assess are sugar and sodium. Ideally, you’ll want a product with less than 5% daily value, but that might not be realistic, and you might have to aim for 7% or less.

Hot sauce

Some hot sauces may contain high amounts of sodium. You’ll need to analyze the nutrition facts table to assess the nutritional quality of the product. Remember that spice level isn’t a nutrient, so this information won’t be on the nutrition facts table.

A nutrition breakdown: what makes a sauce healthy?

A healthy sauce has moderate to low amounts of salt, added sugars, and saturated fats. Sauces that align with this guideline typically have zero-added sugars or zero-added sodium.

You should review the ingredients and nutrition facts table and compare several products to pick the best option. For example, mustard may sound generic, but each brand has its own recipe, and the amount and type of ingredients used will affect the product's overall nutritional value.

Additionally, many store-bought sauces may contain additives or preservatives you wouldn’t use at home. They’re often used to enhance color and flavor or help extend the product's shelf life. These ingredients must be FDA-approved, but some consumers prefer to avoid them. If you see an ingredient on a sauce label you don’t recognize, look it up on the FDA database to learn more about it.

Choosing a sauce that aligns with your medical needs

Some people may have medical dietary restrictions influencing their sauce selection. For them, the healthiest sauce should have low amounts of salt, added sugars, and fats but also lower amounts of other specific nutrients. Some examples are listed below.

  • People with kidney disease may need to reduce their intake of high-phosphorous foods, such as Alfredo sauce.
  • People with gallbladder disease can’t tolerate high-fat foods like full-fat mayonnaise and other creamy sauces.
  • People with a heart condition may require a reduced potassium intake, which is found in ketchup, tomato sauce, or salsa.

Your doctor will tell you if you need to avoid or limit nutrients for your health.

Dietitian's picks: the healthiest sauces for various diets

Are you trying to find something easy and convenient? Here are some healthy sauces that accommodate different dietary restrictions.

Sauce options for vegans:

  • Follow Your Heart Vegenaise
  • Trader Joe’s Kale, Cashew, and Basil Pesto
  • Forager Plant Based Sour Cream
  • Watcharee’s Thai Peanut Sauce

Sauces low in carbohydrates:

  • Maille Old Style Whole Grain Dijon Mustard
  • Primal Kitchen Mayo with Avocado Oil
  • Heinz No Sugar Added Ketchup
  • Ray’s No Sugar Added Barbecue Sauce

Gluten-free sauce options:

  • Newman’s Own Ranch with Avocado Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Primal Classic BBQ Sauce (Unsweetened)
  • Naked Natural Foods Teriyaki Sesame Ginger
  • Organicville Sky Valley Sriracha Sauce

Remember, several hundreds of sauces out there could be healthy — we just don’t have enough room in our list. If you need help picking the best product, consider contacting a registered dietitian for additional guidance.

Crafting healthier alternatives

Making your own healthy sauce at home is easier than you think. When you’re the chef, you have complete control over the ingredients and can modify recipes to suit your nutritional needs. Plus, you have total creative freedom to experiment with flavors and textures.

Tzatziki

Mix your own cucumber yogurt dip at home by mixing plain Greek yogurt with 1/4 cup of grated cucumber, garlic, and two tablespoons of chopped fresh dill. Add a sprinkle of salt and pepper and let the flavors marinate overnight. Serve alongside fresh-cut vegetables, fish, or grilled poultry.

Cesar vinaigrette

Instead of a full-fat creamy dressing, you can make an olive oil-based alternative with healthful unsaturated fats. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup of olive oil, one grated garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of anchovy paste, 1/2 teaspoon of lemon grainy mustard, 1/4 teaspoon of cracked black pepper, and the juice of one lemon. Serve this over green salads (like shredded kale), or use it to dress up veggie-based wraps.

Tomato salsa

Salsa is a loaded vegetable sauce that can be as mild or spicy as you like. To make your own, process two ripe tomatoes, half a jalapeno, a white onion, 1/4 cup of fresh cilantro, 1/3 cup of lime juice, and 1/2 tablespoon of garlic powder. Take a step further by adding black beans afterward for more fiber and protein. You can enjoy this sauce on grainy vegetable bowls or high-protein chicken wraps with vegetables.

Creamy green sauce (a spin on Green Goddess)

Make this bright, herb-forward sauce in a blender at home. Mix a handful of parsley, cilantro, chives, dill, and basil with 1/4 cup of cashews, 1/4 cup of tahini (sesame seed paste), 1–2 garlic cloves, and the juice of two limes. Serve this over dark, leafy green salads or sandwiches with high-fiber whole-grain bread.

Enjoy sauces in moderation

Sauces are a delicious and great way to add extra flavor to your dishes. Choose a brand that you enjoy, but try to maintain moderate serving sizes. For most adults, one tablespoon per meal is enough.

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