The little red condiment bottle has completely taken over the foodie world. No, not ketchup—Sriracha. The hot sauce with the rooster on the front had become a go-to condiment, salad topper, grain bowl accompaniment, and marinade, adding mega flavor to just about any dish. And though the sweet-and-spicy hot sauce seems to dominate refrigerator shelves and takeout counters alike, is it actually healthy?
In a menu makeover, healthy salad empire Sweetgreen nixed Sriracha (as well as bacon). “As the signs in our stores say, we’ve gone ‘less sweet and more green,'” wrote culinary director Michael Stebnor in the press release announcing the change, which may explain why they said goodbye to the condiment whose second ingredient is none other than sugar.
While Sweetgreen’s intentions for removing Sriracha from its menu may have been good (the company now makes all dressings from scratch, in-house), the decision caused an outburst of furious customers taking to Twitter in protest. And since the outrage hints at just how beloved the now-controversial hot sauce is, we consulted nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg to get the (squeeze bottle) facts.
“It really has become the condiment darling,” Middleberg acknowledges, “but when you take a closer look at it, it’s not as healthy as we think it is.” The ingredient list raises some immediate red flags—after chili, sugar and salt are the second and third ingredients, respectively. And according to Middleberg, the combination can be dangerously addicting. “That sweet and salty combo makes you want more,” she explains—and not just more Sriracha, but more of the entire dish. Another red flag? The serving size. Though the nutritional facts claim only one gram of sugar per serving, that only accounts for one teaspoon of the sauce, which is not very much for the average user.
“After chili, sugar and salt are the second and third ingredients…and the combination can be dangerously addicting.”
“The condiment world is hard,” admits Middleberg. “It’s hard to find healthy options when the company’s first priority is often taste.” The focus on taste explains many of the unnatural additives and preservatives (potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfate, in Sriracha’s case), which help sauces retain their flavor and shelf stability.
And though Sriracha’s ingredient list may make it worth thinking twice before dousing your food with the condiment-with-a-kick, Middleberg isn’t suggesting that you say goodbye to spiciness all-together. Capsaicin, the component of chilis that makes them hot, can benefit the metabolism by raising the body temperature and increasing your metabolism for a short period of time.
The healthiest way to get this culinary kick: “Take it straight from the source,” advises Middleberg, who recommends cayenne pepper, chili pepper, or chili flakes for a more natural heat. Flavorful spices like cumin and turmeric are great too. “When something is really flavorful, it will be more satiating and could slow you down,” Middleberg explains.
Clinging to your bottle of Sriracha in defense? Don’t worry, you can loosen your grip: You don’t have to toss the bottle entirely. “Here and there, it’s totally fine,” confirms Middleberg. Just be aware of how much you’re using, and look for versions with a more natural ingredient list when you can. Or, even better, make it yourself.
Scroll down for a healthy Sriracha-inspired recipe that you can make at home—Middleberg loves its natural ingredient list.
2 dried guajillo chili peppers
2 cups chopped assorted fresh chili peppers (like jalapeño, serrano, habanero or ghost)
1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled
coarse Kosher salt
1 1/2 cups white vinegar
1. In a medium skillet, heat the dried chilies over medium heat, turning frequently until lightly toasted. Cut into half-inch pieces.
2. Combine all ingredients in a medium glass bowl and let stand for 30 minutes.
3. Transfer to blender and puree until desired consistency.
4. Pour the mixture into sterile canning jars, cover with a coffee filter or cheese cloth and secure with a rubber band or some twine. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for five to seven days.
5. Seal with the jar lid and refrigerate for up to three months.
Originally posted on October 14, 2016. Updated on September 22, 2018.
Looking for more ways to satisfy cravings, without the extra sugar? These healthy desserts are high in good fats and low in sugar. And these tips will help you navigate sugar content on nutrition labels.