It's officially barbecue season, and you can't wait to make magic out of meat, fire and barbecue sauce. But before you marinate, slather or dip those baby back ribs, be aware that many store-bought sauces may be doing your body more harm than good. From excessive amounts of sodium and sugar to questionable ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, there are several unhealthy barbecue sauces on supermarket shelves. So which ones are the worst, and which ones allow you guilt-free grilling? We did the research and found six sauces that get a thumbs-up because they have less than 50 calories, 300 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of sugar for a two-tablespoon serving. Scroll through to see our picks for the healthy barbecue sauces you should use for your next backyard get-together — and pay close attention to the ones you should avoid.
Worst: Salt Lick Original BBQ Sauce
This Texas-style sauce is made by the acclaimed Salt Lick BBQ chain in Texas Hill Country. The upside is that it features real cane sugar as the main sweetener (just five grams of sugar per serving). The downside? It's loaded with soybean oil, which is the reason for it's high calorie and fat content. A single serving of this sauce racks up 15 grams of total fat, which is one-fourth of the total fat recommended in a day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). And it has nearly triple the calories of most sauces, coming in at 160 calories if you stick to the recommended two-tablespoon serving. Needless to say, skip this Salt Lick sauce unless you're on a high-fat diet or simply looking to gain a few this summer.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 160 calories, 270 milligrams of sodium and five grams of sugar.
Worst: Open Pit Thick & Sweet Apple Whiskey Barbecue Sauce
The first ingredient in Open Pit Thick & Sweet Apple Whiskey Barbecue Sauce is lycopene-rich tomato puree (nice!). But the ingredient list goes downhill nutritionally from there. High-fructose corn syrup is the second ingredient listed, and the sauce also contains sucralose, an artificial sweetener that, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), may have a negative impact on your gut microbiota. It also contains the preservative sodium benzoate, which has been known to cause nausea and vomiting in rare cases. If you want a barbecue sauce with some natural fruitiness, consider adding unsweetened applesauce or pureed fresh fruit into one of our best barbecue sauce picks (read on for those). Then you can slather away without worrying about bad-for-you artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 45 calories, 330 milligrams of sodium and 11 grams of sugar.
Worst: Kraft Spicy Honey Barbecue Sauce
Don't get fooled into thinking this sauce is even slightly healthy because it has the word "honey" (a naturally derived ingredient) in its name. Unfortunately, honey is the sixth ingredient by weight in this bottle of sauce. The sweetness actually comes from high-fructose corn syrup, an ultra-processed ingredient that may contain tiny amounts of mercury, according to a paper published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), and may contribute to the loss of zinc, an essential mineral for the body. Plus, corn syrup is the reason each serving has a whopping 13 grams of sugar. That means each two-tablespoon serving contains roughly one tablespoon of added sugar. And if that isn't enough, the sauce is preserved with potassium sorbate, which, according to Science Direct, may have a potentially harmful impact on the DNA in white blood cells.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 60 calories, 330 milligrams of sodium and 13 grams of sugar.
Worst: Famous Dave’s Rich & Sassy BBQ Sauce
Famous Dave's Rich & Sassy BBQ Sauce contains 360 milligrams of sodium in each two-tablespoon serving. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. That means you'll consume 15 percent of your daily recommendation — and that's if you can stick to a single serving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that excess sodium in your diet can contribute to increased blood pressure and increase your risk for stroke and heart disease. And if that isn't enough to deter you, this sauce is also loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor and the preservative sodium benzoate.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 60 calories, 360 milligrams of sodium and 14 grams of sugar.
Worst: Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce
The first ingredient listed on the Sweet Baby Ray's bottle is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). And in not-so-sweet news, a recent study suggests that consuming excessive amounts of fructose may play a role in cardiometabolic disease (HFCS is high in fructose, if you hadn't guessed). Out of all the sauces we researched, Sweet Baby Ray's has the most sugar (16 grams of sugar for a two-tablespoon serving). That's the equivalent of around four teaspoons of sugar in every serving. And let's not forget that the United States Department of Agriculture recommends limiting all added sugars.
To add insult to injury, the synthetic preservative sodium benzoate is found in this bottled barbecue sauce. When the preservative combines with vitamin C — which this sauce also contains — it may form benzene, and that can potentially lead to increased risk for blood cancers. Our advice? Just stay away.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 70 calories, 290 milligrams of sodium and 16 grams of sugar.
Best: 365 Everyday Value Texas True Organic Barbecue Sauce
This 365 Texas True Organic Barbecue Sauce is sweet, spicy and tangy, plus it's made from certified organic ingredients. While it is listed as one of our best sauces, as with any barbecue sauce that has sugar (this one contains eight grams of sugar, seven of which are added), keep in mind how much sauce you slather on your proteins and veggies. The American Heart Association (AHA) advises keeping daily added sugar intake to no more than 25 grams of sugar (six teaspoons) for women and 36 grams (nine teaspoons) for men. Regardless of the added sugar, we love this sauce for being both lower in sodium and low in calories.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 40 calories, 220 milligrams of sodium and eight grams of sugar.
Best: Stubb’s Spicy Bar-B-Q Sauce
Stubb's Spicy Bar-B-Q Sauce gets a spicy kick from habanero peppers. While the ingredients aren't organic, the good news is that there is nothing artificial in the bottle. After water, the main ingredient is tomato paste. So if you're looking for a good source of lycopene, this sauce hits the mark. In addition to lycopene's potential role in prostate cancer prevention, it offers cardiovascular health benefits. In fact, according to a study published in NCBI, the research found that higher intakes of tomato products may have beneficial effects on blood pressure, blood cholesterol and beyond.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 25 calories, 250 milligrams of sodium and four grams of sugar.
Best: Annie’s Organic BBQ Original Recipe
Annie's Organic Original BBQ Sauce is certified organic, vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified. According to the Non-GMO Project, when food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it means genetic material of an ingredient or ingredients has been manipulated in a way that can't be found in nature or by standard crossbreeding techniques. Basically, it means food or ingredients that were made in a lab. This barbecue sauce also contains no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives and is gluten free. And with just 35 calories per servings, you can slather it onto everything from veggie skewers to chicken wings without guilt.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 35 calories, 200 milligrams of sodium and six grams of sugar.
Best: Simple Girl Organic Carolina Style BBQ Sauce
Simple Girl Organic Carolina Style BBQ Sauce is a vinegar-based sauce and contains no tomatoes or sugar. It's hint of sweetness comes from zero-calorie organic stevia leaf extract. And for dietary bonus points, this barbecue sauce is vegan, gluten-free and kosher. If you haven't tried a Carolina-style barbecue sauce before, you may find yourself using it more often than the standard tomato version. It makes a great dipping sauce, and you can even season chickpeas with it and bake them for a tasty, roasted snack.
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide five calories, 105 milligrams of sodium and zero grams of sugar.
Best: Bone Doctors’ Carolina Bold Barbeque Sauce
With just 65 milligrams of sodium in a single serving, Bone Doctors' Carolina Bold Barbeque Sauce is our favorite low-sodium, low-calorie pick. You'll also love that the ingredient list includes only eight ingredients, and it reads like a homemade recipe — which is a great indicator of a healthy pick. And there's no tomato product here, either. The base is apple cider vinegar, and there's also no water to dilute this flavorful, traditional eastern North Carolina-style barbecue sauce. Hands down, it's our favorite pick. Slather this zesty sauce on your favorite foods all summer long, and don't be surprised if your friends start addressing you as "the grill master."
Nutritional info: Two tablespoons of this sauce provide 10 calories, 65 milligrams of sodium and one gram of sugar.
Make Your Own Healthy Barbecue Sauce!
If you want to truly control the sodium, sugar and fat that goes into your barbecue sauce, the best way is to DIY. And while it may seem intimidating at first, it's pretty simple to whip up a homemade batch, such as our recipe for berry-sweetened barbecue sauce. Made with real ingredients like fresh strawberries, it's sweet and tangy with a notable hint of spiciness. Plus, there's no added sugar. You may never eat the store-bought stuff again.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you have a favorite barbecue sauce that's not on our list? If so, what is it? Does it meet our healthy nutrition criteria? Let us know in the comments below!