Dietitian Kate Marsh reveals the pitfalls to avoid when selecting ready-made pasta sauce.
Ideally, we would always have time to make pasta sauce (and all of our other meals) from scratch. But when life gets in the way, pre-prepared pasta sauces are a convenient alternative. We found over 120 varieties on offer, including fresh (refrigerated) and long-life (shelf-stable) varieties, with flavours ranging from classic Napoletana to gourmet choices, such as Cherry Tomato Arrabiatta. With so much on offer, how do you decide which is best?
A quick review of the nutritional information of commonly available sauces reveals that some of them could be the basis to a healthy meal, while other varieties are high in salt and sugar. So spend some time comparing brands, particularly when it comes to sodium – in some cases, an otherwise healthy choice is actually something best left on the shelf. Your best bet is to look for sauces that include herbs and vegetables.
When we searched the supermarket shelves, we found that the energy content of most pasta sauces ranged from 100kJ/100g to 570kJ/100g. By comparison, most tinned tomatoes contain less than 80kJ/100g. If you’re watching your weight, select one with less than 250kJ/100g.
Some pasta sauces can be a significant source of fat – the ones we found ranged from less than 1g/100g to more than 13g/100g fat. The good news is that there are plenty of low-fat options, with less than 3g/100g fat.
Most sauces are generally low in saturated fat, except for those that have added cream or cheese. If you do opt for a higher fat sauce, choose one with no more than 25 per cent of fat coming from saturated fat.
We don’t really think of pasta sauces as being a carbohydrate-rich food, but we found that carb content varied from 4g/100g to almost 17g/100g, the main source of carbs being added sugar. A cup of cooked pasta has around 30g carbs, so adding a high-carb sauce could significantly increase the total carb content of the meal, presenting problems for those with diabetes or insulin resistance. Look for those brands with less than 10g/100g.
One of the major downfalls of tomato pasta sauces is their sodium content. The lowest sodium content we found was 190mg/100g, but the highest was more than 1000mg/100g! Look for sauces with 250mg/100g or less. If you are following a strict low-salt diet, the best option is to make your own sauce from fresh or canned tomatoes.
It’s easy to overeat when it comes to pasta: a typical jar of pasta sauce is 500–600g, so a simple bowl of pasta and sauce can end up delivering a huge amount of kilojoules and salt. To avoid this, serve smaller amounts of pasta, and use the sauce just to coat the pasta. Add flavour with pepper or herbs and bulk up your meal with plenty of vegies. And avoid using those large pasta bowls, which encourage overeating!
Making sense of sauces
Napoletana – a classic sauce with tomatoes, basil and onions.
Bolognese – a tomato sauce with onion, garlic and herbs, generally added to mince.
Calabrese – a tomato sauce with mushrooms, capsicums and herbs.
Marinara – mixed seafood, usually in a tomato-based sauce.
Matriciana – an Italian-style sauce with tomato, capsicum, onion, bacon and chilli.
Puttanesca – a tomato sauce with olives, anchovies, capers, herbs and chilli.