Is salsa healthy? This is a question many Latinos may ask when learning about nutrition.
Salsa is an interesting food. We treat it like a condiment like mayo or ketchup, which is why people may not necessarily think of it as a vegetable source or a health food.
But the truth is salsa is an incredible way to increase your vegetable intake, and it’s an undeniably healthy food. In addition to helping you increase your vegetable intake, salsa is full of antioxidants and can be a good source of fiber and capsaicin (depending on the recipe).
If you’ve never thought of salsa as a way to increase your veggies before, you’re not alone. That’s why I wrote this article! I’ll help you understand how salsa can help you easily increase your fruit and vegetable intake. I’ll also share some of the health benefits of eating salsa.
Is salsa a vegetable?
As a Latina dietitian, one of the a-ha moments I have with all of my clients is when I share that they can count salsa as a source of vegetables.
Most of my clients are used to a style of nutrition education that ignores Latino foods. So they’ve come to associate “eating their vegetables” with giant kale salads or piles of steamed broccoli.
They forget how many vegetables we use in our cultural foods, because so few dietitians or nutritionists are talking about them!
But if you’ve never thought about salsa as a vegetable before … I want you to think about the ingredients!
A typical salsa usually contains:
- Some type of chile pepper
Certain recipes may also contain:
- Fruits like mango or pineapple
- Nuts or seeds
Every single ingredient I named is healthy! And most of them are vegetables.
But isn’t tomato a fruit?
One of the most common comments I get when I say salsa can be a good vegetable source is that tomato is actually a fruit.
This is because people are confusing botanical classifications with nutrition classifications.
Yes, a tomato is considered a fruit, botanically. So are eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers. But I’m guessing you wouldn’t refer to those foods as fruit.
This is because you’re thinking about the nutritional and culinary classifications versus the botanical ones.
As a dietitian, I group foods based on their nutritional similarities. And nutritionally speaking, tomatoes have more in common with vegetables than with fruits like pineapple, watermelon, or berries.
The USDA agrees. When following the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, tomatoes are grouped with the vegetables because of their nutrient content and common usage.
Similarly, the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes should count as vegetables, legally. And school meals allow tomatoes to count toward daily vegetable requirements.
As a dietitian, I feel confident recommending tomatoes as a vegetable source because their carb content per serving is much more similar to the carbs found in carrots or cauliflower than the carbs found in blueberries or apples.
How much salsa counts as a serving of vegetables?
The issue of serving size is one legitimate concern when considering salsa as a vegetable source.
Split into 3 meals a day plus 1 or 2 snacks, adults can meet this recommendation by eating anywhere from ½ cup to 1 ½ cups of vegetables per meal.
So if the only vegetable on your plate is salsa, you need ½ cup of salsa at a minimum.
This may sound like a lot, but this may be possible with certain meals. My huevos ahogados recipe works out to about ½ cup of salsa per serving, for instance.
But if you’re just putting salsa on top of your tacos or tostadas, you’re more likely to serve yourself anywhere from 2 tablespoons to ¼ cup.
This is why I recommend using salsa as one of your vegetable sources, but eating at least one other vegetable at meals.
In Mexican food, this is in line with how we traditionally serve meals. It’s very common to add small servings of 3-4 different vegetables as a garnish to Mexican meals.
Here’s an example of how to use salsa as a vegetable serving, along with other veggies in Mexican food.
3 Tacos al pastor:
- 3 tbsp salsa (1 tbsp per taco)
- 3 tbsp diced onion
- 2 tbsp radish slices
- 1 grilled jalapeño on the side
Salsa nutrition facts
By this point I may have convinced you that salsa counts as a vegetable source. But maybe you still want to know specific nutrition facts.
A ½ cup serving of fresh salsa roja offers the following nutrients (1):
|2.2 – 5.4 mg (3-7% daily needs)*
|302 mg (15% daily needs)
|28.1 mcg (4% daily needs)
|4.9 mcg (5% daily needs)
*Vitamin C content will depend on if salsa is fresh, store-bought, or cooked.
Canned vs fresh salsa
Of course, these nutrition facts are just estimates. There are so many different recipes for salsa.
Additionally, nutrient content may be affected by processing methods like canning.
Contrary to popular belief, however, canned salsa isn’t inherently less nutritious than fresh.
Plus, one very interesting fact about tomatoes is they’re a good source of lycopene. Processing and heating tomato (like in canning) actually increases the amount of lycopene available (4).
I recommend eating whatever type of salsa you like best and is accessible to you. Just know that there will be different health benefits to whichever variety you choose.
Health Benefits of salsa
Now that you know the basic nutrition facts for salsa, let’s review some of the health benefits!
Here are the main health benefits of eating salsa:
- Good source of vegetables: Not only is a ½ cup of salsa a great source of vegetables, it’s also a good way to get a variety of vegetables. Eating a wide variety of vegetables is just as important as eating enough veggies, for many health outcomes (5, 6, 7) .
- Good source of fiber: As we saw in the nutrition facts chart, a serving of salsa provides about 2 g of fiber. Paired with other foods like beans or corn tortillas, you can easily get a high fiber meal. This is important for gut health and preventing certain types of cancer.
- Good source of antioxidants: As we saw in the nutrition facts panel, salsa provides almost a full day’s worth of lycopene. Lycopene can help prevent certain types of cancer, protect your skin from UV damage, and protect your eye health (8).
- Good source of capsaicin: Capsaicin is the compound that gives chiles their heat. Capsaicin is anti-inflammatory, and may help regulate appetite (9, 10).
(Note: there is some risk to eating very spicy foods. Please do not exceed your personal tolerance level for spice and consult your healthcare provider).
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons to eat salsa! It’s a very healthy food, providing plenty of antioxidants.
Adding salsa to meals is an easy way to increase the quantity and variety of vegetables you eat.
While a full serving of salsa is ½ cup, you can get enough vegetables in a meal by pairing salsa with other vegetable garnishes like shredded cabbage, avocado, and more.
Isn’t it amazing how nourishing our cultural Latin American foods are? That’s why I help Latinas plan healthy Latin American meals! Check out my free 2-day Mexican meal plan to get started.