May 11, 2015

Label Madness Monday: Et tu, BBQ? (Or: How to Eat at a BBQ Joint Without Wrecking Yourself)

I love me some good BBQ!

Set before me some nice sliced brisket or a pile of pulled pork and I’m in hog heaven. (Pun intended.) However, depending on what you order, barbecue joints can be a low-carb/Paleo paradise, or they can be a total blood sugar nightmare.

If you’re watching your carbohydrate intake, you already know to steer clear of the cornbread, baked beans, mac & cheese, and the cheap-o bread they usually stick under whatever meat you order in order to sop up the juices. (Confession: Sometimes I eat this bread, ‘cuz, really, what a waste of yummy meat drippings! I also eat the cornbread sometimes, ‘cuz…well, it’s a bit of a weakness.)

That’s the obvious stuff, though. What about things that are harder to avoid at a BBQ place, like the delicious sauces they use to marinate, baste, and slather your food with before serving it to you? BBQ sauce is a sneaky source of large amounts of sugar. (And by “sugar,” I mean cane sugar, molasses, honey, corn syrup, corn starch, and more.) Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from a popular restaurant chain, Famous Dave’s®. (I am a big fan of this place, and am absolutely not writing this to bash it. I only want to point out the ingredients in the sauces and help us make informed choices, wherever we eat.)

Here are the Rich & Sassy™ and Devil’s Spit™ flavors:

The first ingredient in Rich & Sassy™ is HFCS, and you’ll also see hydrolyzed soy protein, soybean oil, and barley malt flour among the ingredients.

As for the Devil’s Spit™, HFCS comes second, and there’s also hydrolyzed soy protein, corn syrup solids, modified food starch, and you know what? Even the Worcestershire sauce they use contains corn syrup and sugar.

The single best thing in both of these sauces is the vinegar! (Especially good if you’re eating a higher-carb meal. Remember how seemingly magical vinegar is for what ails ya!)

Again, I’m not here to trash-talk Famous Dave’s®. I’ve eaten there in the past, and I’ll eat there again. All I’m saying is, if you’re watching your sugar and/or total carb intake, you might want to go easy on the sauce. (And keep in mind that the varieties I’ve shown you here aren’t even the sweetest ones FDs offers. They’ve got a Sweet & Zesty that I assume contains even more sugar.)

There are a couple of ways to limit the amount of sauce you consume at a place like this:
  • Request that none be added to whatever you order.
  • Don’t add any from the bottles they keep on the table.

Sure, the meat is probably marinated and basted in some sweet stuff, but you’ll consume much less of it overall if you’re not adding even more.

Of course, you’re free to use as much sauce as you damn well please. (Nobody is the boss of you!) Still, it’s not a terrible idea to be aware of how much sugar is in this stuff. (And plain meat doesn't need sauce. It can be darn tasty all on its own, but hey, some of us like a little somethin' somethin' to go with it.) See, the problem isn’t so much the ingredients themselves, as the notion that it’s almost impossible to use these sauces “in moderation.” A typical serving size on BBQ sauce labels is 2 tablespoons. 2 Tbsp is not that much. If you can limit yourself to that, great. But if youre like me, left to your own devices, you end up eating way more. (*Looks away sheepishly.*)

Lest you think you can duplicate a good BBQ meal at home by buying bottled sauce from the store and smoking/grilling your own meat, most commercially available sauces are no better than what you’ll find in a restaurant. My crappy photography skills aside, you’ll find most BBQ sauces contain anywhere from 11-18g of carbohydrate per 2 Tbsp serving. Again, if you can limit yourself to just 2 Tbsp, maybe no big deal. But if you’re gonna slather it on your food (and then slather on some more!), that sugar adds up pretty quickly.

Sorry it’s so blurry, but per 2 Tbsp serving, this sauce has 18g CHO.
s 9g per tablespoon!)
The first ingredient is HFCS and the fourth is modified food starch.
Also contains molasses, corn syrup, and sugar.

This one comes in at “only” 11g CHO per 2 Tbsp serving. 
Still sugar, molasses, HFCS and regular corn syrup, 
but in permutations that add up to a lower overall sugar content. 
(Shout out to readers in PA! Go Yuengling!)

I’ll let this one speak for itself. It’s fairly representative of most other brands you’ll find on store shelves. (And look at Western PA representing again! You know I went to CMU, right? Wheee! And I’m not trying to bash Heinz in any way. During the course of my lifetime so far, I have probably consumed at least twice my body weight in their ketchup.)

I would guess that if you find a good mom & pop BBQ joint, where they make their own sauce in-house, there’s a chance it contains far fewer wacky ingredients. Probably still lots & lots of sugar (mainly via white & brown cane sugar, molasses, honey, and maybe even pineapple juice), but likely no HFCS, no soy protein, and no malted barley flour.

Of course, you can always make your own at home! There are tons of recipes for low-carb BBQ sauce online. I’ll leave the searching up to you, but, in general, you can start out with a plain tomato sauce and doctor it up with things to give it a good BBQ flavor: ground cumin & clove, dry mustard powder, garlic, maybe some cayenne if you like it spicy, liquid smoke, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce (sans corn syrup!) and, if you so desire, a sweetener of your choice, be it regular sugar or molasses, pineapple juice, an artificial sweetener, or something like erythritol.

This, of course, is the best way to go if you’re concerned about what you put down your piehole. But let’s face it: sometimes you want to be waited on. Sometimes you don’t want to cook this stuff yourself. Sometimes you want to just live it up and enjoy. If you want to go hog wild some night (pun intended again), go for it! Here’s how to mitigate the metabolic/physiologic consequences of a mondo-carbo BBQ feast (in my opinion, anyway): engage in a nice, long-ish fast, do a hard workout, take a quick shower, and then GET THEE TO THE BBQ JOINT and CHOW DOWN WITH GUSTO!  The more of your liver & muscle glycogen that’s depleted beforehand, the better your body will be able to process and partition all those carbs. Sweet!)

If that’s not your style, but you still want to enjoy some yummy restaurant BBQ while keeping the carbs in check, here’s my advice. (Even though no one asked for it.)

Stuff we talked about already: 
  • Avoid the obvious sweet & starchy things: cornbread, baked beans, mac & cheese, fries, potato salad, etc.
  • Ask that your meat be served with no added sauce, and no bread underneath. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to leave those things off your plate. 

Other stuff: 
  • If you insist on eating plant foods along with your meat(s) of choice, (post about this coming up eventually), go for collard greens if they’re on the menu (even better if served with bacon!), some other non-starchy vegetable dish if available, or coleslaw. Even if the coleslaw has a little bit of sugar—which it probably does—it’s far less total carbohydrate than you’d get from cornbread & beans. Plus, coleslaw almost always contains vinegar!
  • Ask the wait staff to bring you some apple cider vinegar. I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a jug of it hiding somewhere in the kitchen. Sprinkle some right on the meat and go to town. Very yummy!

To sum up: as long as you know how to navigate the menu, BBQ restaurants can be a low-carber’s best friend. Just be careful of the condiments. Condiments that are loaded with sugar--even natural sugars, like honey, maple syrup, and molasses--can be the undoing of an otherwise great diet.

As always, please know that this is subject to individualization. If you’re lean, active, have no blood sugar management issues, and find your body does better with more carbs, have at ‘em. If you’re still riding the glucose rollercoaster or trying to shed a couple of pounds, you can, of course, still eat & enjoy as much as you darn well please. You just might want to go lower on the sugar and starch is all.

P.S. I’ve put together a handy-dandy guide to condiments for those who are watching their carbohydrate intake. You can find it here.

P.P.S. If you’re wondering about my thoughts on consuming AGEs or exposing myself to PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), I discussed that here. Bottom line: I don’t think consuming pre-formed AGEs via smoked or grilled meat has the same detrimental effects on health as when they form inside us from excess glucose or fructose and glom onto our blood vessels and organs. (Check out Chris Kresser’s take here [scroll down to “Charred meat and cancer.”])

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Thank you so much for all the tips!!!

  2. Make certain your BBQ is cleaned after each utilization, cover your BBQ against the components and ensure your BBQ is settled when an issue is found.