Sauces and their sugar content

Our favourite savoury sauces and condiments are hiding loads of sugar. By Kirsten Braun

tomato and barbeque sauce in bottles

While we expect that a sweet sauce like chocolate or caramel contains a reasonable amount of sugar, we might not expect the same from our savoury varieties. However, some of these sauces contain large amounts of sugar which contribute to our kilojoule intake. Sauces contain sugar for a number of reasons. Sugar is included to balance other ingredients that might be sour, acidic or bitter. This is the case with tomato-based sauces which are naturally quite acidic. Sugar can also be added as a way of improving a product’s mouth-feel, often as a replacement for fat. Low-fat mayonnaise, for example, has added sugar to improve both the taste and texture of the product. 

Here are some of the worst offending sauces, along with tips on how to reduce their consumption.

Tomato sauce

One of our favourite sauces can contain substantial amounts of sugar. Some tomato sauces contain more than 1 teaspoon of sugar per tablespoon of sauce. While the serve size listed on tomato sauce bottles is generally 1 tablespoon, many people use a great deal more. A good way of reducing the amount of sauce used is to measure out a small quantity (e.g., 1 tablespoon) into a small dish to serve alongside a meal, rather than squirting sauce directly on to the food. Squirting the sauce directly on food results in a significant more amount of sauce being consumed overall.

Pasta sauce

Like tomato sauce, tomato-based pasta sauce contains sugar to balance flavours and acidity levels. The sugar content of different pasta sauces can vary considerably. For example, one Dolmio variety contains 44.4 g of sugar in a 500 g jar, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons. An alternative to ready-made pasta sauces is cooking a basic pasta sauce using passata, a type of tomato puree. Many recipes for a basic pasta sauce call for a small amount of sugar to be added but the amount (1-2 teaspoons) will be far less than in a jar of ready-made pasta sauce. 

Sweet chilli sauce

Although we should recognise that this contains sugar because of its name, it is easy to forget because of its savoury uses. Sweet chilli sauce can contain as much as 2 teaspoons of sugar in every tablespoon of sauce. The best substitute is to try just a chilli sauce, which will provide the heat of the chilli but without the sugar hit. Alternatively, serve the sweet chill sauce in small amounts in a separate bowl or try other flavourings such as a squeeze of lime juice.

Barbeque sauce

This sauce is traditionally high in sugars, with molasses, sugar and/or corn syrups being key ingredients. A barbeque sauce can have as much as 1.5-2 teaspoons of sugar per tablespoon of sauce. It is easy to overload on barbeque sauce, especially when served on meats such as ribs. Look for a sauce that is lower in sugar (several brands offer a low-sugar version) or limit the amount used.

Teriyaki sauce

This sauce is a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), sugar, garlic and/or ginger. Traditionally this sauce is used as a glaze rather than a thick sauce added in large amounts, such as in a stir-fry. A ready-to-use pouch of teriyaki sauce added to a stir-fry could contribute as much as 7 teaspoons of sugar. To enjoy teriyaki sauce use it as it was traditionally intended, as a glaze. Brown the meat/fish of choice first and then paint it with a thin glaze of the sauce and cook briefly. If used in this traditional way, teriyaki sauce can actually be a healthy option.


There is a great variation in the brands and varieties of mayonnaise but some contain substantial amounts of sugar, particularly the low-fat varieties. Often larger quantities of mayonnaise are used in salads such as coleslaw or potato salad and so these salads can contain a high amount of sugar. When choosing a mayonnaise pick one with a lower sugar content and if using in a salad try adding it gradually so that you use only just what is needed. Alternatively, substituting natural, low-fat yoghurt for some of the mayonnaise can also provide a healthier option.

Last updated: December 2016

© Women’s Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women’s Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2016 Issue 4.


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