Ask Keri: Is Ketchup Healthy, Or Is It Bad for Me? Does Healthy Ketchup Exist?
Keri Says: If your kids want to put ketchup all over everything, you’re not alone. The all-American condiment has some sort of magical appeal, right? Even when we grow up, it’s hard not to crave it on a burger or as a dip, alongside those sweet potato fries.
But is ketchup good for you? Let’s look at what’s in it.
The Benefits of Ketchup
Let’s start with the (sorta) good news: Ketchup is a low-calorie addition to your meal. It’s only got about 15 calories per serving and zero grams of fat, which makes it a better choice than, say, mayonnaise, which isn’t going to help anyone trying to eat heart-healthy and/or lose weight. One caveat here is that most people put globs and globs of ketchup on their food, while they usually use mayo sparingly. So it’s important to pay attention to serving size when comparing the two.
Also, tomatoes are a great source of the antioxidant lycopene. In fact, processed tomato products are the primary dietary lycopene source in the United States—and, as a report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes, “the amount of lycopene present in processed foods is often much higher than that found in fresh foods, given that processing often involves concentration via water loss.” That’s true of ketchup. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly mean it’s healthy.
The Downsides of Ketchup
The ingredient list from classic Heinz Tomato Ketchup reads: “Tomato Concentrate From Red Ripe Tomatoes, Distilled Vinegar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Salt, Spice, Onion Powder, Natural Flavoring.”
Heinz also makes a “healthier” version now called Simply Heinz Tomato Ketchup. The only difference to the ingredient list above is that “high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup” is replaced with “cane sugar.”
Which leads me to what you’re probably expecting: As with many processed foods, added sugar is my biggest issue here. Whether it’s coming from corn syrup or cane sugar, this classic ketchup contains 4 grams of the sweet stuff per tablespoon. That might not sound like a lot, but it is.
Current recommendations on daily added sugar intake suggest that adults and children over 2 years of age should get less than 10% of their daily caloric intake from sugar. Children younger than 2 years should not be fed foods and beverages with added sugars at all, according to the CDC. Despite this guideline, I always suggest aiming for no added sugar in your diet. It’s not something we should aim for adding into our diets.
I don’t know about you, but if I hand my kids a ketchup bottle, they’re easily going to squeeze a few tablespoons onto their turkey burger and potatoes, which means they could reach their daily limit for sugar from ketchup alone!
There’s also a concern about salt, which we tend not to think about in ketchup because of the sweetness. A one-tablespoon serving size of regular ketchup contains more than 150 mg of sodium, or 7% of an adult’s recommended daily value. Again, keeping an eye on serving size is key.
RELATED: 4 Reasons You Have Sugar Cravings
Other potential issues: “Natural flavoring” is basically an ingredient euphemism for “we’re not telling you what this is,” so I don’t love it when I see it. And since they’re using tomatoes that have been processed into concentrate, it’s hard to know how much of the nutritional value of the tomato has been lost. (In other words, sorry kids, ketchup doesn’t count towards eating your veggies.)
Are Natural Ketchup Brands Really Better?
So should you switch to some of the newer “natural” brands that are popping up?
Here’s the ingredient list for one popular and widely available option, Sir Kensington’s: “Tomatoes, Tomato Paste, Fair Trade Organic Cane Sugar, Water, Onions, Distilled Vinegar, Salt, Lime Juice Concentrate, Green Bell Peppers, Allspice.”
I like that tomatoes are the first ingredient! Also good: Instead of “natural flavoring,” they’re using healthy veggies such as onions and peppers for taste. On the other hand, this upgraded ketchup contains 3g of sugar per tablespoon—still more than you want.
Primal Kitchen may be one of the few—if only—brands that makes organic, unsweetened ketchup. The ingredients include: organic tomato concentrate, organic balsamic vinegar, less than 2% of salt, organic onion powder, organic garlic powder and organic spices.
Is Ketchup Good For You? The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, ketchup might not be a superfood, but it’s certainly not a deep-fried doughnut. If all of this stresses you out, take a deep breath. The bottom line is try to choose a cleaned-up brand, and then pay close attention to portion size. When you top a veggie patty, you don’t want to eat more sugar than found in a chocolate chip cookie!
Another tip: Dijon mustard (soooo delicious) generally has zero grams of sugar and no flavorings added. If you’d like a few more healthy alternatives for topping your burger, check out this list, with suggestions such as fresh salsa. Yum!