Ketchup and mustard are beloved toppers for burgers, hot dogs, French fries and more — but which is better for your health?
"Ketchup and mustard are two of the most popular condiments worldwide, and can be added to a variety of different types of meals and dishes," said Avery Zenker, a registered dietitian with Everflex Fitness, a training center located in Canada.
"The nutritional profiles of ketchup and mustard can vary significantly, depending on the types and quantities of ingredients used."
Despite the varying nutrition specs of ketchup and mustard, there’s still some general intel about these popular condiments worth considering next time you consider squeezing out a dollop.
"Classic ketchup has tomato, vinegar, various forms of corn syrup, salt and spices," said Tina Marinaccio, a registered dietitian and owner of Health Dynamics LLC in New Jersey. "Some brands kick it up a notch with seasonings like Sriracha, jalapeños and cayenne," she added.
Jennifer House, a registered dietitian with First Step Nutrition, said that one tablespoon of ketchup contains 19 calories, about four grams of sugar and 150 mg of sodium.
"The first [primary] ingredient is tomatoes, followed by vinegar, sugar, salt, herbs and spices," she said.
You may hear that ketchup is "pure sugar," said House — but sugar is actually the third ingredient in the condiment.
Ingredients are typically listed in descending order by weight or volume, with the first ingredient listed having the greatest amount.
"While it's higher in sugar and salt than other condiments, ketchup has some nutritional benefits," said House, a resident of Canada. "It's one of the best sources of lycopene, an antioxidant that is known to protect against prostate cancer."
Ketchup can also be put to work as a "masking food" for picky eaters in what’s called the "Food Chaining" concept, said House, in which a familiar food like ketchup is used as a mask to introduce new foods.
"While I wouldn't label ketchup as a vegetable like some school lunch programs of the past, I don't think it's as particularly unhealthy as you often hear," said House.
Other dietitians don’t take as optimistic a view, given that many brands of ketchup have high levels of added sugars and sodium.
"The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 25 grams per day for women and 36 grams for men," said Zenker.
"With a tablespoon of ketchup containing about four grams of sugar, it can add up quickly, especially if used generously."
That’s why when choosing ketchup, Zenker advises seeking out brands with no added sugars or high fructose corn syrup. "If reducing sodium intake is a goal for you, there are ketchup brands with a lower amount of sodium to choose," she noted.
Those four grams of sugar (the equivalent of one teaspoon) are usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup, Marinaccio cautioned.
"Little bits of ketchup here and there as a condiment are not going to wreck your health goals," she said.
"However, if you are using your fries as a vehicle to scoop up as much ketchup as you can, the sugar can really add up," she noted.
She said she's worked with families in which the parents, trying to get kids to up their veggie intake, let them slather on the ketchup in cups, amounting to a whopping 16 teaspoons per cup.
Just as Zenker did, Marinaccio said to skip the high fructose corn syrup, and choose ketchup with natural sweeteners like real sugar.
She also said to pass on products that have artificial sweeteners like sucralose.
"Some research has emerged to suggest long-term use of sucralose may contribute to insulin resistance," said Marinaccio, adding that insulin resistance can lead to elevated blood glucose levels, which in time can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
So what’s in that piquant yellow condiment?
"Classic mustard has mustard seed, vinegar, salt and spices, but typically does not contain sugar, unless it’s intended to be sweet, like honey mustard," said Marinaccio.
As with ketchup, the nutrition profile of mustard can be quite different depending on the brand.
The serving size of one teaspoon of mustard typically contains 3-5 calories and about 110mg of sodium, said Zenker.
"Most mustard nutrition labels display one serving as zero calories, because foods that contain less than five calories per serving are allowed to round down to zero," she said.
"So, if you're having numerous portions of mustard, it won't be zero calories, but it's also not common to eat quantities of mustard to the extent that the total calories are significant."
While Zenker said mustard is not a significant source of many nutrients, it's typically free of sugar, trans fats and cholesterol.
The nutrition pro encouraged consumers to choose mustard that contains turmeric for color, rather than artificial colorings.
As House elaborated, turmeric contains curcumin and gives mustard its bright yellow color (most bright, colorful whole foods contain antioxidants).
"Curcumin is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant," she said.
"Mustard seeds can also have health benefits and contain healthy omega-3 fats. However, the fat content of one teaspoon of mustard is zero grams, so the amount is minuscule," House added.
Overall, House and other experts stated that mustard is a healthy condiment.
"If you need to avoid sodium in your diet and eat lots of mustard, look for a lower sodium version," said House.
"If you are watching your sugar intake, moderate your portions of honey mustard or otherwise sweetened mustard varieties as well," said Marinaccio.
From a nutrition perspective, mustard typically is a better-for-you choice than ketchup.
"Mustard is healthier than ketchup. It’s lower in calories and does not have high fructose corn syrup like most ketchup brands. The salty pucker-up tang of mustard prevents you from eating too much to exceed recommended amounts of sodium," said Marinaccio.
"Ketchup in large amounts can spike blood sugar — and can cause acid reflux in people who suffer from heartburn," she added.
Still, everyone's version of "healthy" is different, stressed House.
"For someone suffering from chronic illness and who is needing extra nutrition or calories, or a child who refuses new food without their favorite ketchup dip, then ketchup would be my pick."
The bottom line, per Zenker, is that both condiments can fit into a healthy diet when used in moderation and when mindful of the product's sugar and sodium content.
"Individual health goals will help determine which choice is ideal for a person. An individual trying to reduce sugar intake may want to opt for mustard, while someone who enjoys ketchup in moderation may opt for it more often," she said.