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Wouldn’t it be nice to build a stable of dips, dressings, sauces, and toppings that can take your salads, veggies, pasta, poultry, seafood, grains, and more from good to great in a snap? These fast flavorings pack a punch without much salt or sugar or add creamy richness without overdoing unhealthy (saturated) fats.

Fruity vinegar

acid League strawberry Rose Vinegar
Acid League.

Many bottled raspberry vinaigrette dressings taste cloyingly sweet because they add more sugar than raspberry purée or juice. For a more balanced dressing, whisk together a fruity vinegar with a neutral-tasting oil (like grapeseed or sunflower) and a pinch of salt.

Two vinegars to try: Acid League’s Strawberry Rosé (made with Riesling grape and strawberry juices) and its Meyer Lemon Honey (made with lemon juice and honey). Neither tops 2 grams of total sugar or 10 calories per tablespoon.

The downside: Be prepared to spend more than you would for a basic red wine vinegar. Acid League, for example, costs $10 for 12.7 oz. at Whole Foods. On the upside, vinegar lasts, well, pretty much forever.

Also try: Champagne vinegar (light-tasting), white balsamic vinegar (a tad sweet), or sherry vinegar (less acidic and more complex than red wine vinegar).

How to use: Dress greens like baby arugula or green leaf or butter lettuce. Then top with oranges & avocado, kiwi & radishes, or berries & walnuts.

Salsa meets guac

wholly Guacamole Avocado Verde
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

Most store-bought guacamoles lack the tart lime-y zip and chunky texture of a guac you whipped up just 60 seconds ago. A step up: Wholly Guacamole Avocado Verde. Wholly’s punch comes from its tomatillo salsa, yet two tablespoons have a mere 100 mg of sodium (and just 50 calories).

How to use: You know the drill: tacos, taco salads, bowls, veggie dipping, etc. 

Also try: Refrigerated fresh salsa (aka salsa fresca). Taste-wise, the tubs of tomato, onion, and jalapeño beat many jarred salsas, with their tomato paste or purée base. And they’re lower in sodium. (Ditto for chunky pico de gallo, though it may not taste fresh for as long as salsa fresca does.) Look for a salsa with no more than 150-or-so mg of sodium in a two-tablespoon serving.

Or make your own. Try The Healthy Cook's fresh tomato salsa and guacamole recipes.

Fresh pesto

premium Basil Pesto
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

Nothing beats homemade basil pesto. For a supermarket pesto that doesn’t disappoint, skip the shelf-stable jars and head to the refrigerator case.

You want one that’s bright green and that has no more than 350 mg of sodium per quarter like Bear Pond Farm Premium Basil Pesto (260 mg). (Read those Nutrition Facts labels. Rana, for example, has 680 mg of sodium. Trader Joe’s Pesto alla Genovese hits 960 mg. Sheesh!)

Also try: Dairy-free or vegan? Gotham Greens uses the classic combo of basil, pine nuts, and olive oil, but leaves out the parmesan cheese, in its Vegan Pesto. Trader Joe’s Vegan Kale, Cashew & Basil Pesto shakes things up...for just $4 for 8 oz. For pesto, that’s a steal.

Or make your own. Try The Healthy Cook's Almost Classic Basil Pesto. For a new spin on pesto, go with Pistachio Lemon Pesto.

How to use: Pesto is a perfect match for earthy whole wheat or legume pasta. Before tossing them together, thin the pesto by mixing in one or two tablespoons of pasta cooking water per quarter cup of pesto. Other great add-ins: cooked broccolini, asparagus, tomatoes, or red peppers.

Got leftover pesto? Dab it on veggies or stir a spoonful into a pot of minestrone or vegetable soup just before serving. When in doubt, freeze it.

A go-to vinaigrette

tessemaes lemon Garlic Dressing

It’s not easy to find a brand with a variety of salad dressings that don’t top 150 mg of sodium in two tablespoons. Tessemae’s does it... and with flavor to spare. 

The pleasantly mustardy, lemony Organic Lemon Garlic sticks to simple ingredients—sunflower and extra-virgin olive oils, lemon juice, mustard, salt, and garlic oil—that keep it versatile. Find it in the refrigerator case. Or stop by the shelf-stable dressings aisle for Tessemae’s Pantry Organic Lemon Pepper or Classic Italian.

How to use: Green salads, bean or lentil salads, pasta name it.

Also try: Need a sweet dressing? Tessemae’s balanced, sweet-yet-tangy Organic Honey Poppyseed has 6 grams (1½ teaspoons) of added sugar in two tablespoons. But it’s so flavorful, you won’t need much.

Balsamic glaze

365 balsamic Glaze
Whole Foods.

With a bottle of balsamic glaze in your cabinet, you don’t need to spend 15 minutes cooking down balsamic vinegar until it thickens.

Like Whole Foods Market 365 Organic, many brands hover around 4 to 5 grams of added sugar and 30 to 40 calories per tablespoon. But you’re more likely to use it by the teaspoon because its rich balsamic flavor is so concentrated. Mmm.

Also try: Fig balsamic vinegar.

How to use: Toss with roasted brussels sprouts or broccoli, drizzle (with extra-virgin olive oil) on fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, or whisk with extra-virgin olive oil into a vinaigrette to spoon over salad greens plus chicken, pecans, and apple.

Beyond basic hummus

ithaca lemon Dill Hummus

With a base of chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed paste), and unsaturated oils, almost any brand of hummus is a healthy-snacking staple.

When you want a new spin, though, Ithaca Hummus dials up the flavor, not the salt. A two-tablespoon serving of most varieties has 95 to 120 mg of sodium—that’s typical for hummus—and 50 to 70 calories.

After trying the company’s herby Lemon Dill, zippy Smoked Chipotle, or bold Kalamata Olive, you might never go back to your former go-to brand.

How to use: Just like any hummus. For starters, spread on whole-grain crackers or use as a dunker for raw veggies like carrot or jicama sticks, sliced cukes, bell pepper strips, mini tomatoes, or cauliflower florets.

Looking for a great basic hummus? Try The Healthy Cook's simple recipe.

Also try: Want to really mix up your dip routine? Swap your hummus for tzatziki or baba ghanoush.

Flavored mayo

hellmanns Spicy Chipotle Mayonnaise
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

Mayo may look creamy, but it has no cream. And because it’s mostly unsaturated oil and water (with a bit of egg, vinegar, and salt), a tablespoon has just 1½ grams or so of saturated plenty of healthy fats. Who knew? 

Flavored mayos—think chipotle, curry, garlic, or sriracha—can lend new flavors to sandwiches and more, often for just 90 to 150 mg of sodium per tablespoon. Despite its name, Hellmann’s Organic Spicy Chipotle is pleasantly mild, with more spice (from chipotle chile and smoked paprika) than heat.

Also try: Tangy Whole Foods Market Organic Spicy Harissa Mayonnaise, if you like more heat. (Harissa is a chile paste common in North African cuisines.)

How to use: As a dipping sauce for breaded chicken or plant-based tenders, drizzled over tofu or grain bowls, or (for chipotle mayo) on fish or shrimp tacos. If needed, first thin by whisking in a teensy splash of water.

Tip: Mayo has around 90 calories per tablespoon. If you want less, start with Hellmann’s Light (35 calories) and mix in a squirt of sriracha, pinch of curry powder, etc. That also works if you’d rather use vegan mayo or don’t want to buy a whole jar of a single mayo flavor. Neat, huh?


trader Joe's Zhoug
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

Trader Joe’s Zhoug Sauce is “a very spicy green herbal sauce with Yemeni roots” made of puréed cilantro, canola oil, jalapeños, chile flakes, garlic, cardamom, salt, and cumin. Two tablespoons pile on those flavors for just 160 mg of sodium (and 90 calories).

Also try: Making your own. Trader Joe’s aside, supermarket zhoug (pronounced “zoog”) isn’t so easy to come by. And Joe’s “very spicy” stuff is for heat-seekers only. But with The Healthy Cook’s recipe, you can tamp down the heat to your liking by adding less—or none—of the jalapeño pepper’s seeds and ribs. Or you can leave out the pepper entirely.

How to use: Swirl a little zhoug into hummus, spread some on a whole wheat pita with chicken or chickpeas, use it to top frittatas or scrambled eggs (or egg whites), or dollop it atop cooked fish or grains. It’s also great on roasted carrots, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, or broccoli.

Chile flakes 2.0

mother In Law's Gochugaru Korean Chile Flakes

Ever wondered if you could get the distinctive flavor of chile peppers without the kick of spicy red pepper flakes? Say hello to earthy, smoky, and low-heat Korean chile flakes (aka gochugaru).

Also try: Chipotle chile flakes. They’re medium-hot and a bit smoky.

How to use: Korean chile flakes are mild enough to sprinkle on just about anything—from scrambled eggs to pasta, roasted vegetables, or grain bowls. Use chipotle flakes when you want a little more heat—in chili, salsa, and other Mexican dishes, for example.

Tangy BBQ sauce

stubb's bbq Sauce

Some bottled barbecue sauces are almost as sugary as jam. Take Sweet Baby Ray’s. A two-tablespoon serving packs 16 grams of added sugar. That’s 4 teaspoons—a third of a day’s worth!

But Stubb’s Original is a Texas-style BBQ sauce. That means less syrupy, with just the right balance of savory, tangy, and sweet. Its first ingredient is tomato purée. (Sweet Baby Ray’s is high fructose corn syrup.) So you get just 4 grams (1 teaspoon) of added sugar in two tablespoons.

It’s rare to find a BBQ sauce that’s low in sodium, though. Even Stubb’s has 250 mg. So go easy.

How to use: Try it on chicken, plant-based meats, tofu, or tempeh.

Indian condiments

Brooklyn Delhi Tomato Achaar
Brooklyn Delhi.

Achaar is an Indian relish that mixes spicy, sour, sweet, and savory into one spoonful you won’t soon forget.

Brooklyn Delhi Tomato Achaar is a good place to start. Think of it as a tangy hot sauce of tomatoes, oil, garlic, tamarind, and Indian spices without too much sodium (45 mg per teaspoon) and next-to-no calories (just 10).

How to use: “Traditionally,” says the company’s website, “it’s eaten with rice, curry, dal and yogurt, but you can top it on most anything.” They suggest lentils, avocado toast, chicken, and more. Sounds good to us.

Also try: Don’t want heat? Brooklyn Delhi offers a delicious Curry Mustard (use it any place you’d use mustard) and a not-too-sweet Mango Chutney with just 3 grams of added sugar per tablespoon (serve it with grilled or roasted chicken).

Fresh-tasting Indian green chutney made with cilantro or mint is rare in supermarkets. Solution: whip up The Healthy Cook’s Cilantro Chutney recipe.

Smoked almonds

blue Diamond Smokehouse Almonds
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

“Smoked” almonds like Blue Diamond Smokehouse Almonds haven’t really been smoked like, say, smoked salmon or Applewood smoked bacon. The nuts get their taste from a dose of natural smoke flavor

That comes close enough to make smoked nuts a perfect plant-based substitute for bacon’s smoky flavor—with a reasonable 150 mg of sodium per ounce (about ¼ cup). Hold the processed meat!

How to use: Add chopped smoked almonds to grain bowls and salads (try a kale caesar), cooked veggies (like broccoli or green beans), or breading for chicken.


cava Tzatziki
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

The traditional Greek dip is made with yogurt, cucumber, garlic, fresh dill or mint, and salt. That helps explain why most brands have about half the calories of hummus (just 35 in two tablespoons).

Plenty—like Cedar’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market 365, or Boar’s Head—fit the bill, though we didn’t find any as smooth and creamy as Cava Tzatziki.

Or make your own with The Healthy Cook's recipe.

How to use: Dipping is only the start. Try a dollop to jazz up your lentils, chicken, falafel, sandwiches, brown rice, or bulgur.

Also try: Dropping dairy? We didn’t find any convincing vegan tzatziki that wasn’t full of saturated-fat-rich coconut oil. But Trader Joe’s refrigerated Vegan Creamy Dill Dressing can punch up salads or stand in for tzatziki. The herby dressing is made with puréed cauliflower, canola oil, and almonds, so two tablespoons have just 60 calories, zero sat fat, and 120 mg of sodium. Taste? You’ll be back at Joe’s for another bottle in no time.

Baba ghanoush

baba Ghanoush
Lindsay Moyer - CSPI.

Baba ghanoush is a slightly smoky, super creamy Middle Eastern dip made from puréed grilled or roasted eggplant, tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic, and salt.

Too bad baba hasn’t yet made its way to most national brands. If you live on the East Coast, you might be able to find (deliciously creamy) Esti. If you don’t, keep your eyes peeled for a regional brand.

Also try: Cava’s sesame-free Roasted Eggplant Dip is mostly eggplant, oil, parsley, garlic, onion, lemon, and salt.

How to use: See “How to use” for tzatziki.

Roasted sesame seeds

JFC roasted Sesame Seed
JFC International.

Keeping a shaker of any brand’s roasted (or toasted) sesame seeds in your fridge is a good way to top off salads, bowls, and cooked vegetables with flavor, crunch, and healthy fats at a moment’s notice.

How to use: Add to salads (try dark leafy greens with a sesame or citrus dressing and tofu, salmon, or chicken). Or sprinkle over sautéed spinach, broccolini, or Asian greens like bok choy, yu choy, or gai lan. You can boost the sesame flavor by sprinkling on a few drops of toasted sesame oil.

Tip: In many supermarkets, roasted sesame seeds are stocked alongside the soy sauce and other Asian condiments, not in the spice aisle, where you’re more likely to find small jars of unroasted sesame seeds.

Also try: Toast your own almond slivers or other nuts. (Click here for a how-to.) Use them for crunch in salads (instead of white-flour croutons), cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt (instead of sugary granola). Heads up: They go from browned to burnt super fast.

Make your own

Recipes for sauces, dressings, and toppings

Prefer homemade? The Healthy Cook has quick and easy recipes to whip up your own hummus, zhoug, tzatziki, and more.

Get the recipes