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Ketchup a culprit in high sugar intake

by Doris Penner

It’s hard to imagine a hot dog without mustard or French fries without ketchup. Condiments add pizzazz to a food, adding the extra flavour to change bland to tasty and good to very good. Since condiments are eaten in small amounts—a spoonful here or there—they are often given a free ride when it comes to nutrition. Anyone who checks labels on products such as mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard or hot sauce, however, might question whether some of the ingredients listed could potentially have a harmful effect on the body. Indeed, scientific analysis of popular condiments reveals they are not as innocuous as they might appear. While preservatives, sodium (salt) and fat present a problem, equally worrisome is the high content of sugar. As an example, let’s examine ketchup, a popular condiment that is part of almost every summer picnic.

The label on ketchup tells us the product is composed of tomato paste or sauce, water, glucose-fructose (and/or corn syrup), white vinegar, salt, spices and seasonings. The condiment adds the flavour we associate with summertime foods such as burgers and fries, is low in calories and saturated fat, is ingested in small amounts and contains healthy tomatoes as a predominant ingredient, so what’s the problem?

Added for flavour

It is true, one of the primary components of ketchup is tomatoes, which contain vitamins and minerals as well as fibre, all essential for optimum health. But wait a minute, ketchup is eaten in such small amounts that we can’t honestly say it’s a good source of nutrients or fibre. Of concern are the relatively high amounts of sugar (one teaspoon in a tablespoon of most ketchups) and salt, added for flavour and as preservatives.

It should be noted a minimum amount of sugar intake is not an issue, but the problem in modern society is that sugar in one form or another is added to almost everything we buy in grocery stores whether we know it or not—including peanut butter, pasta sauce, salad dressings and most processed foods. What has happened over the years is that in their effort to placate consumers who have a phobia about fat intake, food processors are adding sugar—often in the form of corn syrup which is cheaper and sweeter than table sugar—to make up for the flavour. And while sugar as an ingredient has to be listed on food labels by law, it comes in so many different forms, consumers get tired just trying to figure it out (a few examples are agave, cane sugar, dextrose, carob syrup, dextrin, maltase and so on and on) Thus while sugar in ketchup would not be a concern if that was the only sugar ingested, it is the cumulative effect that presents a problem. Statistics show that Canadians on average ingest 88 pounds of sugar a year (about 25 teaspoons a day) with children and teens consuming even more.

Causes a spike

So what’s wrong with sugar? The three most common forms are sucrose or table sugar, glucose and fructose, all known as “simple sugars” which means they enter the bloodstream quickly and cause a spike in blood sugar. In moderate forms insulin, the hormone that distributes glucose into cells for energy, can handle the sugar. However, an overdose on a consistent basis means insulin becomes resistant, a state of metabolic function that is implicated in obesity, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Fructose (a sugar in corn syrup) is metabolized by the liver, a remarkable organ that is able to handle moderate amounts, turning fructose into glycogen and storing it until needed for energy. Too much, however, and fructose is turned into fat, causing a fatty liver which leads to serious health problems. It should be noted that fruits also contain sugar, but they are high in fibre which allows for slow absorption; as well, fruits contain a host of nutrients in contrast to foods with added sugars which offer only “empty calories.”

With awareness of the ill effects of sugar, it seems wise to mitigate intake, starting with obvious sources such as pop, doughnuts and candy. Next, look for “hidden” sources such as processed foods—and that brings us back to condiments, among them ketchup and barbecue sauce. It’s not necessary to write them off completely but rather to eat them moderation. Further, check labels and seek out those that have zero or low sugar content.