Hot sauce has long been a staple for millions of Americans.
The crazy part is that hot sauce seems to be getting even hotter—at least when it comes to sales. According to Euromonitor, U.S. hot sauce sales have increased by at least 5% in every year since 2012. We’ve previously discussed how condiments can single-handedly sabotage a meal’s nutritional value. Is hot sauce one such condiment?
To determine the answer, let’s start by taking a look at the four most popular hot sauce brands—Frank’s RedHot, Sriracha, Tabasco and Cholula. According to Credit Suisse, these four brands make up 50% of the U.S. hot sauce market.
The nutrition facts for these popular hot sauces are surprisingly barren. All of the following servings are equal to one teaspoon.
A serving of Frank’s Redhot contains 1 calorie and 190mg of sodium. A serving of Sriracha contains 5 calories, 80mg of sodium and a gram of sugar. A serving of Tabasco contains 0 calories and 35mg of sodium. A serving of Cholula contains 0 calories and 85mg of sodium.
Really, there isn’t much in these sauces except some sodium. There’s essentially no calories, sugar, saturated fat, etc. There’s also none of the nutrients we know to be most valuable—such as protein or fiber—but it’s hard to hold that against a condiment that consists almost entirely of peppers, vinegar and salt.
However, there’s one important consideration to take into account when it comes to hot sauce—serving size. While all four of those brands recommend a one teaspoon serving, there’s a good chance you’re using significantly more than that. The main issue with overusing hot sauce (aside from possible stomach discomfort) is sodium. Let’s say you’re actually using two servings of Frank’s Redhot instead of one anytime you grab the bottle. And let’s say you’re using that much three times a day. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really not an improbable scenario for hot sauce lovers. That equates to six servings of Frank’s Redhot each day, which adds an extra 1,140mg of daily sodium into your diet.
Sodium is an essential nutrient—your body needs it to survive—but it’s also incredibly easy to overindulge on the stuff. In a time when the average American is getting the majority of their calories from highly processed foods, sodium is everywhere. In fact, studies show that 9 in 10 Americans consume too much sodium. Over-consuming sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and a wide range of other issues. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually.
The recommended daily level of sodium intake is 1,500 mg—about the amount you’ll find in two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt. (Note: While many equate salt with sodium, sodium is in fact a component of salt. Table salt is about 40 percent sodium; the rest is chloride.) Although athletes who work out at a high intensity for several hours a day can get away with eating more, people who work out only moderately (for an hour or less per day) typically don’t sweat enough to warrant a high-sodium diet. According to estimates, the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium a day—more than twice the recommended value. So if you’re a true hot sauce fanatic, sodium consumption is certainly something to keep in mind.
However, a growing amount of research is finding that an invisible compound found in hot sauce may be capable of some impressive health benefits. That compound is capsaicin, and it’s the active ingredient found in many hot peppers. Capsaicin is what gives hot sauce its distinctive heat, but it may also be the secret to its potential health benefits.
One of the most oft-cited pieces of research regarding capsaicin and human health is a study published in The BMJ entitled “Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population-based cohort study.” Participants included 487,375 Chinese adults. Researchers found that participants who ate spicy foods three or more times a week had a 14% reduced risk of death compared to participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week, even after adjusting for “other known or potential risk factors.” But you may not need to subject yourself to spiciness that regularly to receive the benefits—even participants who ate spicy foods just once or twice a week had a 10% reduced risk of death compared to participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week.
“The beneﬁcial roles of capsaicin have been extensively reported in relation to anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antihypertensive effects, and in improving glucose homeostasis, largely in experimental or small-sized population studies,” the authors write. “(Our study adds that) the habitual consumption of spicy foods was inversely associated with total and certain cause specific mortality (cancer, ischemic heart diseases, and respiratory diseases), independent of other risk factors of death.” These findings were supported by a recent study published in the journal PLOS One.
While the ways capsaicin consumption benefits human health is still largely a mystery, there are a couple of theories gaining traction. One is that capsaicin has a positive effect on the gut microbiome—the collection of bacteria, yeasts and fungi that reside in our gut. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the condition of our gut microbiome has a huge effect on our overall health, as research has connected the gut microbiome to autism, diabetes, obesity, cancer, arthritis, allergies, Parkinson’s disease acne and more.
David Popovich, a senior lecturer at Massey University (New Zealand) who studies bioactive compounds in plants, believes capsaicin may trigger a process known as “apoptosis.” This process is defined as “the death of cells that occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development.” This means that mutated cells (such as those that spread cancer) will be replaced by new cells, which could be a key reason for capsaicin’s apparent disease-fighting capabilities. “That’s one of the ways scientists think capsaicin and other active compounds in vegetables can prevent cancer development—by stimulating apoptotic cell death,” Popovich told TIME.
You may have heard that spicy foods like hot sauce can increase metabolism and aid in satiety. This is true, but the effect isn’t as significant as you might think. “The magnitude of these thermogenic and appetitive effects is small and their long-term sustainability is uncertain,” concluded the authors of a study on the topic.
Here’s one thing I do know for sure—hot sauce can help add flavor to the healthy foods you might not feel are all that appealing on their own. Adding a dash of hot sauce to your vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, etc. can help you enjoy eating them more frequently, which is certainly a benefit all its own.
So, is hot sauce healthy? As long as you stick to hot sauces with fairly simple ingredients and keep an eye on your sodium intake, yes. The only real risk of regular hot sauce consumption seems to be gastrointestinal discomfort, but that symptom varies widely from person to person. And while it’s still too early to declare hot sauce a magical elixir of health, the existing research certainly seems to indicate it does more good than harm.
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