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msnbc.com
updated 8/4/2006 9:30:31 AM ET 2006-08-04T13:30:31

Salsa has become a more popular condiment than ketchup, according to some sales reports. Most say this points to Americans’ growing love of hot and spicy foods and interest in ethnic foods. Salsa can also help us meet the goal of working more fruits and vegetables into a healthful and delicious diet.

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Salsa actually means sauce, and traditionally has referred to a very specific combination of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and spice from chili peppers. Originally we reserved it for Mexican food and as a dip for chips. In recent years, however, Americans have been using it as a condiment almost any place they would put ketchup: on burgers, baked potatoes, eggs and other foods.

During this time, innovative cooks have been changing our definition of what makes salsa. It can be cooked or uncooked (“fresh”). Popular salsa recipes on cooking Web sites and television shows now combine vegetables and fruits − and may even omit tomatoes. Examples include black beans, sweet red pepper and hot chili pepper with orange and avocado; peach, cucumber and lime; mango and avocado with cilantro; and pineapple, corn and mango.

With a wider range of what constitutes salsa, it becomes suitable for chicken, seafood, and bean dishes, as well as on cooked whole grains from brown rice to quinoa.

Savory side dish
And if we shift from a small amount used as a flavoring, to a half-cup portion, it adds an extra serving of vegetable or fruit to our daily tally. A tablespoon of a condiment, whether ketchup or salsa, cannot supply a very large amount of nutrients, no matter what the ingredients. But in larger portions, the various vegetables and fruits in salsa can supply a wide range of antioxidant vitamins, natural phytochemicals (such as lycopene in tomatoes), and the mineral potassium that is in such short supply in our diets.

“Dressings and sauces that are full of fat are the undoing of many an otherwise healthy meal. That's why we included three salsa recipes and even a salad with salsa for dressing in The New American Plate Cookbook,” notes Jeff Prince, Vice President for the American Institute for Cancer Research. “Our cookbook shows people they do not need to choose between food that promotes good health and food that is absolutely delicious. Salsa adds an extra serving of fruits or vegetables and lots of flavor to your meal.”

Wide range of salsas
Check the grocery store or look at various Web sites and you will see an unbelievably wide range of salsas. But don’t stop there. You can make a batch of uncooked salsa in 15 minutes with the combination of produce and flavorings that suits your taste for hotness.

You don’t save on calories by making your own, because most commercial salsas don’t contain added fat and only use small amounts of sugar. The main nutritional advantages of homemade salsa come from the freshness of the ingredients and the lower sodium. Most commercial salsa contains from 90 to 270 milligrams (mg) of sodium in just two tablespoons. That’s half the sodium content of ketchup. But if you use a half-cup of one of the higher-sodium salsas, you get more than one-third of the recommended limit on sodium for a whole day. Homemade salsas don’t require added salt for flavor, so they can contain only 2 to 10 mg of sodium in a much larger half-cup portion.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Researchin Washington, D.C.

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