On a sandwich, salad, or hot dog, condiments can add lots of flavor. But be smart when choosing sauces and toppings — some condiments add a hefty dose of calories, sodium, and extra fats along with flavor, and it can be easy to slather on more than one serving.

Dressing Disasters — Why It’s Dangerous

Photo by Caitlin Covington

Condiments can be a sneaky source of “hidden” calories because they’re often not taken into account when people consider the nutritional value of food. The worst offenders are energy dense foods, meaning a teensy amount has many calories. They also typically have high fat contents, unhealthy additives, and not a lot of nutritional positives for the body. Plus, many lack significant amounts vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Here are the biggest offenders to keep an eye on and some tips on how to avoid these bad boys:

  • Mayonnaise: This simple blend of oil, egg yolks, lemon juice, vinegar, and seasonings sounds pretty harmless, right? Wrong! Just two tablespoons of mayonnaise can pack up to 200 calories and 24 grams of fat (yowza!). And four of those fat grams are the saturated kind, which, while debated, could increase the risk for cardiovascular diseaseDietary fats and cardiovascular health. Carrillo, Fernández, L., Dalmau, Serra J., Martínez Álvarez JR, et al. Centro de Salud La Victoria de Acentejo, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Sociedad Espanola de Medicina Familiar y Comunitaria (semFYC), Spain. Anales De Pediatria 2011 Mar;74(3):192.. The real downer is that mayo is basically a nutritional zero since it contains hardly anything that’s good for the body, with barely any vitamins or minerals. And while there are low-fat and light options, these generally contain additives to help compensate for lack of flavor, such as high fructose corn syrup, which may be linked to weight gain and decreased insulin resistanceFructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. Elliott, S.S., Keim, N.L., Stern, J.S., et al. Department of Nutrition, University of California, Davis 95616, USA. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2002 Nov;76(5):911-22.. Beware of foods that contain mayonnaise as well: Pasta salad, deviled eggs, and creamy artichoke dips often list mayonnaise as a main ingredient, meaning they contain it in bulk.
  • Ranch dressing: As one of the top-selling varieties in the U.S. for the last 20 years, ranch dressing can contain up to 150 calories in two tablespoons, plus 16 grams of fat (that’s 24 percent of the recommended daily amount) and 12 percent of the daily recommended amount of sodium. This beloved topping contains zero vitamins and a measly one percent of the daily-recommended value of calcium. What makes this calorie culprit even worse is that it’s easy to overdo. Pouring from the bottle can result in a ranch dressing overload (with a ½ cup serving adding nearly 600 calories!). And when it turns into a dip for pizza and French fries… forget about it!
  • Pretty much anything with the word “cream” in the title: A dollop of sour cream may be tasty on tacos and baked potatoes, but beware: Sour cream is ninety percent fat, so while two tablespoons adds a respectable 60 calories, they contain 18 percent of the daily recommended dose of saturated fat and no nutritional extras. While full-fat foods can certainly be incorporated into a healthy diet, that doesn’t make noshing on a nutritional zero is a good choice. And the same goes for cream cheese — two tablespoons packs in 100 calories and 28 percent of the daily maximum recommended dose of saturated fat. Many bagel restaurants slather on 4 tablespoons or more (that’s 4 times the recommended serving size of 1 tablespoon), logging upwards of 200 calories on already calorie-heavy bagels.
  • Pancake Syrup: Syrup may taste great on pancakes and waffles (and if you’re Buddy the Elf, maybe even spaghetti), but take a look at the ingredient list: Excluding water, the first three ingredients of most artificial “maple” syrups are all different forms of sugar. Half a cup of some brands can contain a whopping 438 calories and 107 grams of sugar.

While condiments do add extra calories, they could also influence people to eat more of the food in general. In one recent study, when researchers added things like ketchup to fries and whipped cream to brownies, subjects ate between 25 to 40 percent more of the item itselfVariety enhances food intake of humans: role of sensory-specific satiety. Brondel, L., Romer, M., Van Wymelbeke, V., et al. Centre Européen des Sciences du Gout, UMR CNRS 5170, Dijon, France. Physiology & Behavior 2009 Apr 20;97(1):44-51..

Swap the Seasonings — Your Action Plan

Wanna know the secret to keeping condiments but cutting the calories? First, portion control! Limit toppings, sauces and dressings to one serving (generally one to two tablespoons). Next, try swapping out the nutritional downfalls for healthier substitutes (without losing the flavor!). Here are a few of our favorite swaps:

  • Swap mayonnaise for avocado for a similar texture and flavor without the added nasty stuff. Although both are high in fat, avocados provide monounsaturated fats, which may lower bad cholesterol and prevent coronary heart diseaseHigh-monounsaturated fatty acid diets lower both plasma cholesterol and triacylglycerol concentrations. Kris-Etherton, P.M., Pearson, T.A., Wan, Y., et al. Graduate Program in Nutrition, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999 Dec;70(6):1009-15.. Avocados also provide solid doses of vitamins E and B6. Stick to one portion, though — one serving (or roughly half the fruit) is about 125 calories (75 calories less than one serving of mayonnaise).
  • Instead of ranch dressing, choose a healthier salad dressing that offers just as much flavor and are easily homemade. In vinaigrettes, try using red or white wine vinegar, lemon or orange juice, or vegetable stock to replace excess oils. Looking for a replacement for ranch? Silken tofu actually makes a great base for a creamy dressing once pureed in a blender and offers both protein and calcium.
  • If that creamy craving can’t be kicked, try using plain Greek yogurt as a sour cream substitute to cut calories but still get that thick and creamy texture. Plus, Greek yogurt (a Greatist superfood!) contains calcium, potassium, riboflavin, vitamins B6 and B12, and magnesium — none of which are present in the sour cream.
  • When choosing syrup, be sure to check the ingredient list. Go for pure maple syrup, and if it contains different types of sugars (glucose, fructose, dextrose…), don’t buy it! Alternatives to syrup include fruit jams and preserves, nut butters (just pay attention to portion size), or sliced fruit.
Our Favorite (and healthy) Condiment Recipes from Around the Web:

Asparagus and Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette via Cooking Light

Healthier Homemade Ranch Dressing via Mom’s Kitchen Handbook

Hummus via Food Network

Perfect Guacamole via Simply Recipes

Avocado Mayo via Gluten-Free Gigi

What’s your favorite healthier condiment? Tell us in the comments below!