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Is Sriracha Under Siege?

The hipster hot sauce is being kicked off some menus and banned from grocery shelves over health concerns that seem a bit overheated.

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Sweetgreen, the rapidly expanding, salad-centric darling of the fast-casual restaurant world, angered a lot of its customers last month when it announced it would stop using Sriracha and bacon. And it’s not the only one to take action on the popular sauce, leaving some to question the crackdown.

Sweetgreen announced the changes in a Medium post, saying it was part of a menu revamp dubbed “Healthy 2.0.”

Why?  

“Because,” writes Michael Stebner, the company’s head chef, “it’s time to make America healthy again.”

Riding a sustainably-minded, health-focused trend, Sweetgreen has made its name in fresh, healthful foods. So, from a nutritional standpoint, axing bacon sort of makes sense. But Sriracha, the beloved, rooster-emblazoned hot sauce? Nixing that, nutritionists say, might not make much of a difference when it comes to customers’ health.

“Sriracha is essentially hot chile peppers,” says Torey Armul, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

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Hot chilies at an outdoor vegetable market in Indonesia.

Sure, the second ingredient in Huy Fong’s Sriracha is sugar, the third is salt, and it has some scary-sounding preservatives. But to eat the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended limit for sugar consumption of about 12 teaspoons a day, you’d have to down half a bottle of Sriracha—enough, really, to blow your head off.

A handful of researchers and diet experts question the move. 

“In my opinion, the company´s decision about stopping Sriracha [use] was not well supported on scientific evidence,” explains Jose de Jesus Ornelas Paz of Mexico’s Research Center for Food and Development, who has done extensive research into the health benefits of chili peppers. Ornelas Pas notes that hot chilis are the sole dietary source of capsaicin, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, hypoglycemic, antioxidant and analgesic effects (see Peppers: Can You Take the Heat?). 

Sweetgreen didn't immediately return The Plate’s requests for comment. But Stebner made clear in his Medium post that Sweetgreen’s decision to yank Sriracha was health-based and aimed squarely at sugar.

“As the signs in our stores say, we’ve gone ‘less sweet and more green,’” he wrote, noting that the company has cut sugar in drinks by 70 percent. “And I couldn’t be more proud of the progress we’ve made.”

Indeed sugar has become the villain ingredient of the moment. The FDA recently unveiled a new Nutrition Facts label that will, for the first time, call out added sugars, largely because of their role in spiking obesity rates. 

“Added sugars aren’t such a big deal, especially in a condiment,” says Willis Fedio, who runs a lab at New Mexico State University, where he analyzes the contents of chile-based foods, including several Srirachas. (Huy Fong is the country's biggest maker of Sriracha, but others have made similar blends using the same name.) The real question may be, “Why aren’t they going after ketchup?”

Mom’s Organic, a chain of health-forward stores in the Washington, D.C. area, is banning Sriracha from its shelves for a different reason—it contains potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfite.

Fedio says, sodium bisulfate is really only an issue if you have an allergy to sulfites. Some evidence suggests negative health effects of potassium sorbate, but again, you’d have to eat an awful lot of it.

Like Sweetgreen, Sriracha is an American success story, having enjoyed the kind of phenomenal rise that budding entrepreneurs fantasize about.

Its inventor, David Tran arrived in the US from Vietnam, and began bottling his sauce in 1980.  He called the company Huy Fong Foods, after the freighter that carried him from his native country, and named the hot sauce, Sriracha, after the Thai town of Si Racha, from which he drew inspiration for his concoction. Huy Fong has never advertised, building a cult following by word-of-(blazing)-mouth alone. The company now sells about 20 million bottles a year.

Sales of hot sauces in general have exploded over the last 20 years, driven in large part by Sriracha. Its popularity has even begun putting dents in famed fiery blends, like Tabasco. One study found that 16 percent of people under 35 — the same young market that’s driving the success of Sweetgreen — has a bottle of the stuff in their kitchens.

Huy Fong’s Sriracha and other Sriracha brands have found their way onto lower-brow menus at Taco Bell and Applebee’s, and into the dining rooms of superstar chefs, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten. 

Sriracha is on its way to becoming a staple condiment, on par with ketchup and Tabasco.

But to eat the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended limit for sugar consumption of about 12 teaspoons a day, you’d have to down half a bottle of Sriracha—enough, really, to blow your head off.

Sweetgreen, launched in 2007 in Washington, D.C. by a trio of graduates from Georgetown University, had the perfect profile for showcasing a hipster hot sauce. The company aimed for a young, health-conscious customer, and hit the mark with its line-up of inventive salads, composed of novel-seeming ingredients—like Sriracha. Venture capital poured in.

Since launching, the company has opened more than 40 stores, and recently relocated its headquarters to Los Angeles, better positioning itself to tackle the massive California market—where it will have an even bigger platform for broadcasting its ingredient-focused messages. 

So while targeting Sriracha might represent more of a symbolic move than a nutrition-based one, Sweetgreen seems willing to lose its die-hard, Sriracha-loving customers to make a point.

“We're going to change the way restaurants in this country cook,” Stebner wrote. ”Because of the access and footprint we have, we're on the biggest soapbox there is.”