Homemade pasta sauce is wonderful. But if you’re like me, you don’t always have time to make your pasta sauce from scratch. That’s where the convenience of store-bought pasta sauce comes in. The problem is that many of these jarred pasta sauces come with added sugar and excess salt – things most Americans try to reduce in their diet.
However, if you choose wisely, it is possible to find a pasta sauce that allows you to feed your family a healthy meal without the extra sugar and salt. Here are a few tips and guidelines to help you choose a healthier pasta sauce for your family. Before you read the rest of this, grab a jar of sauce from your cupboard and follow along to see what to look for in a pasta sauce.
Look at the ingredients
Find the ingredient list on the nutrition label and read through it. Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order by weight, with the highest amount by weight listed first. Choose sauces made with tomatoes and other vegetables, spices and seasonings. Go easy on white sauces or those with added meat and cheese as these can be high in fat, salt, and calories.
Many sauces also have added oil. Choose those that use extra virgin olive oil over other vegetable oils. Extra virgin olive oil provides more heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids than oils such as soybean or sunflower oil, which are higher in omega-6 fatty acids.
The ingredient list is also where you can see if there is any added sugar. However, sugar is not always listed as ‘sugar’ in the ingredient list. Other common names for sugar include: dextrose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maltose, rice syrup, and more. Choose a sauce that has no added sugar, or where sugar is listed toward the bottom of the ingredient list.
Look at the nutrition facts
Next look at the nutrition facts part of the label. You should see that the serving size for pasta sauce is ½ c. That doesn’t mean you need to use ½ c. per serving, but just that the nutrient levels listed on the label are based on ½ c. of sauce. If you eat less than that, you will consume less of the nutrients listed and if you eat more, you will consume more of those same nutrients. This is also where you’ll find how many calories there are per serving as well as how much fat, cholesterol sodium, carbohydrate, protein, and other nutrients there are. The three I pay most attention to are fat, sodium, and sugar.
First, let’s look at fat. On the label you’ll find the total amount of fat per serving as well as the amount of saturated fat and trans-fat. Choose a sauce with less than 2 gm or less saturated fat. Look for products that use extra virgin olive oil for their fat instead of other types of fat.
Next, look at the amount of sodium in the sauce. Pasta sauce, while convenient, is often filled with excess sodium. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend no more that 2300 mg sodium per day for most adults – and most of us eat way more than that. Pasta sauces sometimes contain over 500 mg per ½ c. alone. That’s a lot of sodium in one serving. What to do? Choose a sauce that contains no more than 350-400 mg sodium or less. If you find it needs more flavor, you can always add more herbs and spices at home while keeping sodium at a decent level.
Figuring out how much added sugar there is in your pasta sauce can be a little more challenging. Newer food labels make it easier by directly listing how much added sugar is in their product. Manufacturers that haven’t yet switched to the new label will have labels that list only the total amount of sugar in one serving of their sauce. That can be problematic because tomatoes and other added vegetables naturally contain sugar. So, the label will list an amount of sugar that includes that naturally found in the ingredients along with the amount of added sugar. Here is when you need to look at your ingredient list and choose a sauce where no form of sugar is added or where it’s listed very low on the ingredient list. For sauces with the new label, try to find one that has no added sugar or very little added sugar.
Look at the price and taste
With all that said above, you still need to consider how much the sauce costs and how much you like it. Pasta sauce can range in price from a low of $1.50 to as high as $12 or more. That’s a big difference, and it’s okay to take that into consideration. Personally, I can’t justify spending $12 on a sauce, no matter how good it is. So, I try to find one that fits my budget, meets the guidelines I talked about above, and one that my family enjoys eating.
All these things need to be considered when choosing a pasta sauce. Look at the ingredients, nutritional profile, cost, and flavor and choose one that best suits your needs and preferences.