• Health

What Sweetgreen’s Sriracha Ban Tells Us About Hot Sauce

3 minute read

The decision by the fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen to take Sriracha and bacon off its menu has created quite a few irate customers over the last few days, and not just because it’s part of a Trumpian marketing campaign called “Make America Healthy Again.”

First some background—On Tuesday, Sweetgreen announced a few menu changes, including removing bacon and Sriracha from the menu entirely. “The second ingredient in Sriracha is sugar,” Sweetgreen said in a statement announcing the change, “so we removed it from our recipes, replacing it with the natural, sugar-free heat of dried chiles.” They scrapped bacon, they said, for health and ethical reasons.

As I write in my upcoming book Hot Sauce Nation: America’s Burning Obsession, you’d be hard pressed to find a condiment loved more ardently (and hated more fiercely, for that matter), than hot sauce, and Sriracha is the great hot sauce story of this millennium. Sales of the rooster sauce made by Huy Fong Foods out of the Los Angeles area have grown every year since its inception more than three decades ago, and without any advertising or even salespeople to go out and solicit business for the sauce. It literally sells itself. Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha is a viral sensation unlike anything else the hot sauce world has ever seen—hot sauce maker and industry heavyweight John “CaJohn” Hard calls the entire hot sauce boom underway today “the Sriracha wave.”

But the runaway success of Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha is due at least in part to the fact that it is a stark departure from most American hot sauces, which tend to be thinner and more vinegary. Sriracha in contrast, as I write in Hot Sauce Nation, is thick and garlicky and makes generous use of two constituents “that are the foundation of, like, every secret ingredient ever: salt and sugar.”

Whereas hot sauce in general tends to be quite low in calories and have little or no sugar (and a whole litany of additional health benefits), by comparison Sriracha—and it pains me to say this, Sriracha lovers, for I am one of you—isn’t very good for you. Sriracha’s 1 gram of sugar per teaspoon puts it roughly on par with the sugar content of plain old ketchup.

While I can understand Sweetgreen’s decision to show Sriracha the door, their dried chili flakes will be a weak substitute. Sure, they’ll give a salad a kick, but that’s not all people are looking for in a bottle of hot sauce. Hot sauce is a finely tuned vector for the spiciness of chili’s that balances heat against other ingredients like salt, vinegar, and, yes, in case of Sriracha, sugar. Should I find myself headed for lunch to Sweetgreen in its post-Sriracha era, I’ll just bring my own—and I’m not the only one.

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