Many people consider condiment as the soul of Chinese cuisine. By matching and adding different seasonings to food ingredients numerous mouth-watering dishes are created. However, behind the savour are "tricks" like high sugars and high sodium levels. Should consumers are aware of the way that condiments are used to prepare food, choose carefully among various condiment offers and use moderately, a healthier diet can be developed without much effort.
The World Health Organization (WTO) recommends daily intake of no more than 2,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium by a healthy adult. Based on consumption of 3 meals in a day, sodium intake should be limited to a level below 667mg (about 1/3 level teaspoon) in each meal. For sugars, the WHO recommends an adult with a 2,000-kilo-calorie-a-day diet should limit the intake of free sugars to less than 50g, which is equivalent to about 10 level teaspoons of sugar.
The Consumer Council examined nutritional labels of 65 samples of condiments in 4 categories encompassing 15 samples of oyster sauce, 15 samples of ketchup, 13 samples of XO sauce and 22 samples of chili sauce and pepper sauce.
The survey observed that the sodium and sugars contents of oyster sauce are generally high. One sample was found to contain 5,100mg of sodium per 100g, which means every level teaspoon of the sample contains 306mg of sodium. Consumption of 2 teaspoons would almost reach the upper limit of sodium intake per meal. There is a wide range in the sugars content among the oyster sauce samples surveyed. While 1 sample was found to be totally sugar-free, the sample richest in sugars-content was found to contain 26.2g of sugars per 100g, equivalent to one fourth of the ingredient contents in terms of weight.
The 22 samples of chili sauce and pepper sauce surveyed are also widely different in terms of sugars content. While 2 samples were found to be sugar-free, 5 were found to contain less than 2g of sugars per 100g. However, the sample contained the highest level of sugars was also found in this category. This is a sample of chili sauce from Indonesia which was found to contain 50g of sugars per 100g, i.e. half of the sample’s ingredient content is sugars by weight. Based on a level tablespoon of 18g that contains around 9g of sugars, a consumption of about 2 tablespoon would exceed the recommended sugars intake limit per meal, at approximately 17g.
The most sodium-rich sample found in this survey is a pepper sauce from South Africa that contains 5,571mg of sodium per 100g. In every level teaspoon of 5 grams of the chili sauce, 278mg of sodium was found. Consuming 2.5 level teaspoons would exceed the recommended sodium intake limit per meal.
Although the level of sodium content found in tomato ketchup samples was not high, sugars content was found to be generally high, probably because more sugars are needed to neutralize the sour taste of tomatoes. Of the 15 ketchup samples surveyed, 6 were found to contain more than 20g of sugars per 100g, accounting more than one fifth of the ingredient content by weight. The sample with highest content was found to contain 26.4g of sugars.
Among the condiments surveyed, XO sauce samples were found to contain relatively low levels of sodium and sugars contents. The 13 XO sauce samples were found to contain sodium at between 450 to 1,640mg per 100g. As for sugars, 1 sample was found to be sugars free while the one with highest content was found to contain 10.7g of sugars per 100g.
Judging by the WHO recommended level, only if a large amount of condiments was consumed in every meal limit, would consumer then exceed the per-meal intake limit. However, consumers have to beware that it is fairly common to use more than 1 condiment during cooking. Some dishes may also be served with sauces added at the dining table, e.g. fries usually come with ketchup and turnip cakes are usually served with chili sauce. Together with the amount of sodium and sugars content in other food and drinks, the recommended limits might easily be exceeded without noticing should consumers do not work out carefully the amount of sodium and sugars they take in each meal every day.
Chinese New Year is approaching. Braised mushrooms in oyster sauce, one of the most popular festive Chinese dishes during the reunion dinner and through New Year holidays, was taken as an example to illustrate intake level. Based on a recipe found in the market, 3 tablespoons of oyster sauce and 1/2 teaspoon of salt are needed for a serving of 4. Each tablespoon contains approximately 18g of oyster sauce. If we take the average level of sodium content of the 15 samples surveyed (3,658mg of sodium per 100g), the amount of oyster sauce used to prepare the braised mushroom dish contains 1,975mg of sodium. Together with the 1,000mg of sodium contained in the 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the total amount of sodium adds up to 2,975mg. Assuming the entire dish was consumed and shared equally by 4 people, every one of them would have taken-in 744mg of sodium from the condiments used in this dish, which has already exceeded the per-meal limit.
Moreover, agents of 5 condiment samples surveyed admitted the values listed on nutrition labels were inaccurate. They agreed to change the labels. Another agent said that owing to the change of raw ingredient materials used, it was not certain whether the values set out in the nutrition label would sustain. However, should discrepancies were found, they would rectify them as soon as possible.
The Council's survey on soy sauce and other condiments last year has unveiled inaccurate information on the nutrition labels of certain products. The Council reminds suppliers once again that it is their responsibility to provide accurate nutrition labels to facilitate consumers' exercise of informed choice.
To eat healthy, consumers should:
- Understand their own habit of using condiments and the sodium and sugars contents of different condiments, then make a plan to improve dietary habit by reducing the amount of sodium and sugars intake;
- Use natural ingredients, like herbs, black pepper, ginger, green onion and garlic, etc.;
- Read nutritional labels and choose condiments with lower sodium and sugars contents;
- When consuming “Poon Choi”, turnip cakes and other Chinese New Year food, taste before adding extra condiments;
- Avoid consuming condiments and food which are high in sodium and sugars content, or share them with others to reduce the portion consumed;
- Eat an appropriate amount of food rich in potassium, such as sweet potato, banana and yogurt, which help discharge excessive sodium contains from your body.
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