Condiments that are actually killing you


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"Let's be honest. Good food (that doesn't need a little extra something) is either slow or expensive. And since most of us lack both the time and money to do any better, we reach for the sauce. But here's the rub: each portion of sauce that tastes so good could actually be killing you. Not in a sudden cupful-of-botulism kind of way, but more a death-of-a-thousand-cuts kind of way. That's because each of those insignificant smears is but one of thousands you will probably eat this year, and every year afterwards. Let's dive into the chief protagonists in this culinary tragedy…

Condiments that are actually killing you

- Salt:
The original, best, and first thing people reach for when their food needs something extra, salt is the primordial soup from which nearly all other condiments were born. That's because salt makes food taste good. It does this in three ways: it makes food saltier (duh, but more on that later); it makes it easier for other molecules in the food to be released into the air, adding to the smell of food (a major contribution to our experience of taste); and it suppresses something's bitter taste.

That's all great. But in order to prevent all the extra salt in your system from becoming toxic, your kidneys have to reduce the amount of water and other fluids they remove to keep the salt diluted. Extra fluid means extra volume, and that means higher pressure, putting strain on everything from your heart, to your kidneys, and the arteries themselves. Over an extended period of time this extra pressure can cause kidney disease and failure, hardening and narrowing of the arteries (resulting in further increases of blood pressure), heart attacks, and strokes. But despite this, and because of what salt does to flavor, condiment manufacturers add it in spades. Right along with…

- Sugar:
Sugar is such a simple condiment that a lot of people wouldn't even think of it as one. Yet it is often found side by side with salt on dining tables and in more complex sauces. Adding sugar to food enhances the sweet flavor (again, duh), and because it is full of quick energy that our bodies can use for fuel, the ancient hunter-gatherer deep inside every one of us craves more and rewards us when we get it. That's well and good for a hunter-gatherer for whom sugar was a rare and valuable treat. But it also means that adding sugar is an easy way for food producers to make us crave their product.

The average American consumes around 130 pounds of sugar a year, and the health effects of that are by no means a mystery. Apart from the obvious dental repercussions, when you binge on sugar, your blood sugar level rises rapidly, prompting your pancreas to release insulin, which attempts to balance that level by converting some of it as fat. If your blood sugar level increases too fast, the pancreas can overproduce insulin and potentially drop those levels too far, making you crave sugar again. All this carries risks of diabetes, obesity, and heart problems of various kinds. So what do we get when sugar and salt meet in your favorite toppings? To start with, there's…

- Barbecue sauce:
Barbecue sauce is a bit of a catchall name for a family of sauces that are often also used for marinades, which makes them especially dangerous. Because it would be one thing if it was applied like ketchup, a little on the side for dipping, but it's not. Instead, meat is soaked in it for hours before being cooked, then the sauce is constantly reapplied during cooking until it has reduced down and formed a sticky, sweet, mouth-watering glaze. Which is perfect…if you're trying to make championship ribs. Unfortunately, because the sauce is constantly being reduced to a glaze on the surface, a much larger quantity of sauce (and everything in it) ends up on the meat. And that includes the salt, sugar, corn syrup (yet another kind of sugar), molasses (even more sugar), and a great big dollop of tomato ketchup (which is, surprise, 25 percent sugar).

- Sriracha:
Sriracha is not the worst offender on this list by a long long way, and it is mostly applied to pretty healthy meals, but it still has its moments. The problem with sriracha is it's kind of addictive in a "this tastes so good I want to put it on everything" kind of way. Which means the relatively small amounts of bad stuff that you would occasionally add to a stir fry, becomes a relatively small amount of bad stuff you're eating all the time. Which is actually a lot of bad stuff when you put it all together. And if you're really into sriracha, you will probably find yourself regularly eating a bunch of those sriracha-flavored snacks, like popcorn and potato chips as well, which is really just even more bad stuff quietly hitching a ride on some other bad stuff. Sriracha's biggest problem is really just all the salt it contains: 100 mg in a teaspoon, or 4 percent of your recommended daily allowance. And that may not seem like much, but did you ever hear about the straw that broke the camel's back?

- Mayonnaise:
Mayo is the king of condiments: sitting at the top of the sales figures with $2 billion worth being consumed each year in America alone. Mayo is also the daddy of the condiments since it has spawned any number of spin off condiments like ranch dressing, horseradish sauce, tartar sauce, and Remoulade sauce, not to mention all the variations that are made by adding something extra, like garlic mayo, sriracha mayo, curry mayo, herbed mayo…there is virtually no limit to the ways you can disguise mayonnaise, so you'll never get bored. And that's a bad thing. Because unlike the rest of the stuff on this list (at least that portion of it not made with mayonnaise), mayo isn't just a salt and sugar delivery system. It has other ways to kill you too, especially if you're allergic to eggs.

The crucial ingredient in mayonnaise that sets it apart from all the rest is the uncooked egg yolk, which brings cholesterol into the equation, not to mention the risk of salmonella if the egg yolk isn't pasteurized first (most commercial mayo is made with pasteurized yolks though). And if you're still interested in adding a big dollop of mayo to your next sandwich consider this: mayonnaise contains so much oil that a single tablespoon contains 15 percent of your recommended daily allowance of fat. Now think about that "salad" you put it in the other day and do the math.

- Soy sauce:
Soy sauce contains 36 percent of your recommended daily allowance in a single tablespoon, or 879 mg. The counterbalance to this is that soy sauce is usually added to largely healthy meals, and not in great quantities either. But with that amount of salt in the mix you wouldn't need much to cause trouble. Soy sauce can trace its history back to second century China, making it probably the oldest addition to this list, and that's not its only standout feature. Soy sauce is made from the fermented paste of soybeans and can contain up to two percent alcohol, which makes it virtually liquor. Just don't try and get a buzz from it, because the salt would put you down long before you could legally earn a DUI. But you'd probably taste good".

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