Everything That's Not Healthy About Ketchup

Ketchup is an incredibly popular condiment. It's quick to add flavor to virtually anything, from burgers to fries to eggs. Some people even use it in more unusual ways, such as on vegetables or rice. Others throw it on corn, green beans, and even mashed potatoes. Urban legend says there are even some folks who like a little ketchup on their blueberries. Therein lies the beauty of the topping: It can conceivably go with everything, adding its distinctive flavor to virtually anything. Is it any wonder that restaurants are more than generous in giving out those tiny pouches?

Another reason for its widespread appeal may well be the fact that ketchup isn't married to a single flavor profile. It's a little bit sweet, yes, but it's also salty. It can be spicy in some iterations. Above all else, it's a tangy delight that can make the most subdued dish taste absolutely sublime. Ketchup has the innate ability to bring out the best in your favorite foods without robbing them of their own respective flavors. There's also the little fact that ketchup is downright simple to squeeze directly from the bottle. Everyone can enjoy it!

For all its ease and palatability, though, ketchup is not exactly considered a "health food." From excessive sugar to high sodium levels, ketchup's nutritional profile can throw some diets completely off track. Here are a few reasons why you may want to rethink ketchup — or at least consider how often you use it.

It contains a surprising amount of sugar

Tomatoes contain natural sugars, but that's not the only sugar found in ketchup. The condiment contains a significant amount of added sugar per tablespoon, which can be problematic and lead to health issues like weight gain, insulin resistance, and increased risk of chronic diseases, especially since people tend to consume more than a single tablespoon with their food.

That's partially because people tend to squeeze their ketchup out of the bottle indiscriminately. It flows directly over that heap of French fries. It sits in a healthy dollop next to a plate of onion rings. It adds instant vibrance to a bland burger patty. Of course, it's not exactly common practice to whip out a measuring spoon for ketchup when you're enjoying these kinds of foods. However, if you're trying to be mindful about how much sugar you consume, that could be one of the smartest choices you make for your health.

As it stands, Americans consume, on average, approximately 17 teaspoons of sugar daily (per Rutgers). The usual sources are common additions like cookies, cakes, and other sweets. Because ketchup doesn't seem like it is loaded with sugar, people may not be as quick to identify it as something to cut out of their diets. Now that you know, you can take action. At the bare minimum, aim to slash your ketchup intake if you're monitoring how much sugar you consume on a daily basis.

It may be packed with high-fructose corn syrup

You may be familiar with high-fructose corn syrup and its negative reputation. There's a good reason for it, as it's one of the most harmful additions to any diet. Unfortunately, its presence in ketchup is often widely overlooked — which means if you're a regular ketchup consumer, you could be taking in far more high-fructose corn syrup than you even realize.

The simple truth is that many types of commercial ketchups contain high-fructose corn syrup, a type of sweetening agent linked to metabolic health issues like obesity and insulin resistance. It can also contribute to negative health outcomes when consumed in excess. Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, a functional medicine expert, explains to Cleveland Clinic, "Fructose goes straight to your liver and starts a fat production factory. It triggers the production of triglycerides and cholesterol."

It may even contribute to so-called "leaky gut syndrome," affecting digestion and potentially increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Because it may also increase your appetite, it makes it more likely that you'll consume even more sugar in its wake. This can have significant health consequences, contributing to issues like inflammation and heart disease. Says Dr. Hyman, "It can even cause fibrosis or what we call cirrhosis. In fact, sugar in our diet is now the major cause of liver failure and that makes sugar the leading cause of liver transplants."

Some versions are loaded with sodium

A big part of the reason for ketchup's popularity is its intense flavor. With about 190 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, it's no wonder that the condiment is such a great complement to such a wide range of foods. Even more significant is the fact that ketchup is not just salty and sweet, but also has an umami flavor profile. That makes it broadly appealing because it's a simple flavor, but it's never boring. All of these components — the salt, the sugar, and the umami — ensure that.

But consuming a diet consistently high in sodium can contribute to hypertension and increase the risk of developing heart disease and stroke. What's more, sodium is really the only noteworthy electrolyte found in ketchup. Explains Katie Schimmelpfennig, RD, a sports dietitian and the founder of Eat Swim Win, to Everyday Health, "Ketchup lacks other electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium."

That's significant, because these are the very electrolytes that could help you avoid some serious health problems. Per a 2019 review in Nutrients, reducing sodium and increasing electrolytes like potassium and magnesium can help patients with high blood pressure regulate their levels. At the same time, electrolyte levels must be monitored carefully among a select population, as too much of anything can leave a person at risk of greater health problems. Some signs that you might be eating too much salt include bloating, puffiness, and weight gain. It's best to see a doctor if you experience these symptoms.

Ketchup isn't rich in nutrients

While tomatoes, the primary ingredient in ketchup, are nutritious, ketchup itself is not exactly known as a nutritional powerhouse. In fact, it's nothing of the sort. That's because the process of making ketchup typically results in the loss of certain beneficial nutrients. This leaves the final product with considerably less nutritional value than that of fresh tomatoes. First, the tomatoes are strained to eliminate components like skin and seeds. Then they're cooked once more, often at extremely high temperatures, which in turn causes a significant degree of both mineral and vitamin loss.

The irony is that while consuming a few teaspoons could easily tip your daily sugar and salt intake over the recommended limit, the same can't be said for the micronutrients. Tomatoes might be high in beneficial vitamins A, C, and K, along with potassium and folate, but you won't get much of that when you're dipping your French fries or chicken in the sauce. Plus, any health benefits that you might glean would be minuscule — not to mention cancelled out by and large if you're eating slightly unhealthy, less than nutritious foods.

So what's the solution if you don't want to forgo your ketchup but also want to make sure you're really getting the most nutritional value out of every bite? Begin researching "natural" varieties that aren't loaded with added sugar and other unnecessary additives. These varieties may not taste the same, but they can bring some much-needed excitement to your plate.

It's easy to overeat ketchup

You know how it goes: One minute you're munching on a salty fry or crunching on a salty onion ring, and the next you're dressing it up with a drizzle (or more) of equally salty ketchup. The marriage of sweet and tangy can make it easy for diners to overeat the condiment — and as we know by now, that can lead to an increased intake of sugar and sodium. 

Because these can have such a negative effect on your health, it's important to understand their repercussions so you can make more responsible choices when you eat. It's not just salt and sugar responsible for all the negative effects, after all. It's also the preservatives that food manufacturers add to the condiment. And mistaking ketchup for a "good for you" addition to your plate if you're on a diet or watching your fat intake could be disastrous. The sugar, for example, can lead to weight gain and may ultimately set the consumer on the path to obesity, and the high-fructose corn syrup could lead to cardiovascular health concerns. 

One way around this is to severely moderate how much ketchup you add to your plate if the craving strikes. Use the small ketchup packages provided by restaurants, for example, as this is a contained amount that should provide just the amount you need. Another option is to use a teaspoon to measure out a precise amount of ketchup for flavor.

It could cause an allergic reaction

Although it's very rare, it's possible to experience an allergic reaction to ketchup. You might have a tomato allergy, or your body may not tolerate potassium sorbate, which is present in some types of ketchup and behaves as a preservative. It's both colorless and odorless, so you'll never actually know it's there. 

Specifically, tomato allergies can manifest in a variety of ways. It can cause itchy skin, for example, and may even aggravate symptoms among people who already have eczema. That might mean redder, more irritated, and more uncomfortable skin. Severe allergic reactions can also affect the digestive system, causing unpleasant issues like diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, coughing and sneezing reminiscent of hay fever, and hives. Most people will develop their symptoms shortly after consuming the tomato. 

And while governing bodies have deemed potassium sorbate to be GRAS, or "generally regarded as safe," such a pronouncement may not be helpful if your system is sensitive to it. Common symptoms of a possible problem include nausea, tingling in the mouth, stomach upset, vomiting, and itchy skin. Explains Alyssa Wilson, MS, RDN, LD, a metabolic success coach, to Eat This, Not That!, "Although the FDA states that potassium sorbate is generally recognized as safe (GRAS), it is still best to limit food additives that could possibly trigger an inflammatory response."

It's associated with generally unhealthy foods

You won't typically find ketchup thrown over a salad. It's much more commonly paired with less nutritious foods, like burgers, hot dogs, fries, and onion rings. If you have a ketchup craving or you're about to dig into one of those foods and add ketchup, you could be increasing your caloric and fat intake, not to mention sugar and sodium. That's not to mention that adding tasty ketchup to your plate could also make it more difficult to prevent overeating.

In moderation, though, ketchup can easily be a part of your daily intake. According to Rob Hobson, the head of nutrition at Healthspan, "It's normally only used in small amounts as a condiment and in most cases not every day, so I see nothing wrong with including a lower sugar and salt variety as part of a healthy diet."

That's another good bit of news — there are healthy foods on which you might choose to pour your ketchup. You can add a drop to a baked potato, for example, or a sweet potato. Liven up a plate of scrambled egg whites with a light dash. Pour a bit onto a veggie hamburger. Some people even enjoy stirring it into rice for a little kick. Don't be afraid to experiment, ideally with a version that you make yourself or that's naturally lower in harmful agents like salt and sugar.

It's not for a keto diet

If you follow a high-fat, low-carb diet, then you can't rely on ketchup to add flavor to your meals. Many of the ingredients in the recipe can threaten this diet, and key among them are sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. As the average ketogenic diet limits carbohydrate intake to anywhere between 20 and 50 grams per day, adding ketchup to your meals could potentially derail your goals.

Since many rely on their keto diets to stave off weight gain and to protect their bodies from medical issues like cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and PCOS, it's important to be mindful of the role that ketchup plays in your diet and how it could affect you. If you grow accustomed to the taste and find yourself reaching for the bottle regularly, your sugar intake may far exceed what you've outlined for yourself as an acceptable limit.

What's a keto diet follower to do if they've got a ketchup craving but don't want to give in to the red sauce? There are a number of alternatives that are just as flavorful and versatile, such as mustard and some types of hot sauce. Some even make their own ketchup, an option you might want to explore for yourself if you love the taste of ketchup and aren't quite prepared to give it up.

It can be tough to make the right choice

To say it can be mystifying to weed out the good from the bad when we're all so spoiled for choice in the modern world is an understatement. While there may have been only a handful of varieties of ketchup available once upon a time, today the shelves run rampant with different flavors and ingredient profiles. There are natural varieties, organic varieties, flavored varieties, and so many more. What's the right choice when all you really want to do is live your life and eat ketchup?

Depending on the type of diet that you follow, you might be confused about the best type of variety for your purposes — and that can be frustrating. The founder of Hispanic Food Communications, Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, MS, RD, tells Eat This, Not That!, that it's important to select a brand that meets the right criteria. It should contain minimal sugar, no added salt, and no corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. 

It's just as important not to be fooled by so-called claims of "healthy" recipes. An organic ketchup could easily contain far more sodium than another type of ketchup, for example. Some types have lower sodium content but more sugar, and vice versa. Even those ketchups considered truly healthy might contain more sodium to compensate for their lack of flavor. It can be frustrating, but it can also be rewarding if you're a big ketchup enthusiast.