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Take It In: Condiments bring benefits far beyond flavor

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

What’s a hot dog without mustard? French fries sans the ketchup? Or  tuna salad minus the mayonnaise? 

Condiments are those food add-ons that make great-tasting entrees, sides and snacks even tastier. Though these foods are used in small quantities, they can add up. This can be either good, like an addition of even more nutrients to the diet, or bad, such as unwanted calories, fat and salt. Here’s the scoop:

MUSTARD. A favorite since at least Roman times, it’s the combination of ground mustard seeds with liquids like vinegar and lemon juice that gives this yellow condiment its zing. 

Mustard recently made national news when Winnipeg Jets ice hockey player Mark Letestu was sitting on the bench and caught by a camera eating the entire contents of a mustard packet – no hot dog or pretzel in sight. The reason? Mustard has been linked to lessening the chance of muscle cramps. 

At first, researchers thought this was due to electrolytes in mustard, such as sodium and potassium, that could possibly fend off dehydration,  and thus, cramps. New research shows that mustard, as well as other pungent condiments like wasabi, works by way of something called transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. These mediate sensations like taste. A couple of these channels run from the mouth to the stomach. Scientists believe that strong flavors delivered via these channels by eating could ultimately calm the nerve cells that cause muscle cramps. 

Nutritionally, mustard provides merely three calories per teaspoon. Even flavored mustards, such as a honey Dijon mustard, has just 10 calories per teaspoon. This means mustard is a good alternative to higher calorie condiments such as mayonnaise, oils and salad dressings. 

KETCHUP. Salsa is nipping at the heels of this popular condiment, which dates back to 17th century China. The primary ingredient in this sweet tangy sauce is tomatoes, followed by sugar, vinegar and other seasonings and spices such as onion, garlic and coriander. It’s the tomato content, specifically the plant-based nutrient called lycopene, that put ketchup in the news. 

Most recently, Brazilian researchers published an article in the June issue of the journal Foods showing that lycopene is a potent killer of human prostate cancer cells. What’s more, researchers underscored that ketchup – as well as tomato paste, tomato sauce and tomato extract – were rich in lycopene. Men, especially, can now feel good about indulging their ‘inner kid’ and putting ketchup on everything. 

Nutrient-wise, ketchup contains about 7 calories per teaspoon, with about three-fourths of this coming from sugar.

MAYONNAISE. Thick and creamy, made of oil and egg yolks, this bright white condiment isn’t generally recognized as healthful. Yet, it isn’t all bad, especially considering how it is served. 

Case in point, Japanese food scientists back in 2009 published an article that revealed mayonnaise, when eaten with foods like broccoli, boosted blood concentrations of cancer-preventing phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin, which are one type of carotenoid, and beta-carotene, another type of carotenoid. Interestingly, oil was as helpful as mayonnaise in increasing lutein/zeaxanthin, but only mayonnaise increased these two plant-based nutrients plus beta-carotene. 

The nutritional downside to mayonnaise is its calories: 33 per teaspoon, with virtually all from fat.

When it comes to condiments, remember – little things can add up,  both good and bad.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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