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How to Find a Super Sauce

by Jayne Hurley and Bonnie Liebman, September 2011

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Quick. Cheap. Convenient. It’s no surprise that pasta is one of the most popular meals in homes (and at restaurants).

That jar or tub of tomato, Alfredo, or pesto sauce is partly what makes pasta so easy. Yet picking a sauce can be anything but. Which has less salt? Less sugar? Little or no saturated fat? More flavor? Which claims on the label matter and which are just marketing blather? Here’s what you need to know.

Information compiled by Zahra Hassanali and Melissa Pryputniewicz.

1. Check the serving size.

Prego Heart Smart Ricotta Parmessan. Built-in cheese. Just missed an Honorable Mention.

The serving on Nutrition Facts labels is typically a half cup if it’s a red (tomato) sauce and a quarter cup if it’s an Alfredo or pesto. But watch out.

Companies like Le Grand, Sauces 'n Love, and Scarpetta use two level tablespoons (an eighth of a cup) for their pestos, and Whole Foods uses two tablespoons for its Mama’s Pesto and just one tablespoon for its 365 Basil Pesto. Seriously? One tablespoon?

Even a quarter or a half cup ain't much. Why are labels allowed to give calories, sodium, etc., for so little sauce? Because it only has to cover one cup of cooked pasta, which is the official serving. That’s the size of a baseball. It's more like a side dish than an entrée. Solution: add enough veggies to bump the volume up to main-dish territory.

2. Look for less salt.

Sodium is the Achilles’ heel of pasta sauces. Unless you find a no-salt-added brand that you like (we didn’t), that half-cup serving can get a rise out of your blood pressure. Sauces vary widely, as you can see from these typical sodium levels in some popular brands:

Francesco Rinaldi ToBe Healthy Garlic & Onion. Thick and herby.

  • 200-300 mg: Amy’s Organic Light in Sodium, Cucina Antica, Dell’Amore
  • 300-400 mg: Francesco Rinaldi ToBe Healthy, Muir Glen Organic, Prego Heart Smart, Prego Veggie Smart, Rao’s Homemade
  • 400-500 mg: Classico, Colavita, Emeril’s, Prego, Ragú
  • 500-600 mg: Amy's Organic, Barilla, Bertolli, Buitoni, Francesco Rinaldi, Hunt's, Newman's Own, Ragú Robusto

See the photos on this and the next page for the best-tasting Best Bites (no more than 300 mg of sodium in every half cup), Honorable Mentions (no more than 350 mg), and near misses. Better yet, make your own pasta sauce (see p. 15 for recipes).

3. Ignore vegetable claims.

"2 servings of veggies in every ½ cup of sauce!" boast Ragú’s Chunky tomato sauce labels. "More than 2 full servings of veggies," say Prego's Veggie Smart labels. "50% of your daily vegetable recommendation."

Dell'Amore Original Recipe. Complex. Seductive. Not your average tomato sauce.

Since each quarter cup of tomato purée or sauce is a serving of vegetables, according to the Food and Drug Administration, a half cup of just about any (mostly tomato) sauce would qualify as two servings. (Veggie Smart adds some sweet potato and carrot juice concentrates, which ups the vitamin A and boosts the vegetables above two servings.)

But you'd be better off not relying on a half cup of pasta sauce to supply two of the six daily servings of veggies (plus five servings of fruit) that the healthiest diets have. Not when you could feast on a broccoli-mushroom stir-fry or a spinach-artichoke-heart salad or a grilled vegetable kabob instead.

And don't bank on the lycopene in tomato sauce to lower prostate cancer risk. Recent studies have found no lower risk of prostate cancer-especially the aggressive type-in men who have higher blood levels of lycopene.

Classico Spicy Red Pepper. Not too spicy, with a pleasant sweet/tart balance.

4. Ignore "no sugar added" claims.

“No sugar added” is showing up on a growing list of sauce labels, from Bobby D’s, Cucina Antica, and Mario Batali to Patsy’s, Prego Veggie Smart, and Ragú Light. The less added sugar, the better. But a serving of most red sauces has only about 4 grams (one teaspoon) of added sugar, plus another 3 or 4 grams of sugar that occurs naturally in the tomatoes. If you have to choose between “no sugar added” and a lower-salt pasta sauce, go with less salt.

5. Don’t be swayed by “healthy” or “heart” claims.

"Fortified with DHA Omega 3," says the front of the Francesco Rinaldi ToBe Healthy label. Does that matter?

Rao's Homemade Arrabbiata. Fabulously spicy. Perfectly Balanced.

DHA is one of the two oils that give fish its healthy reputation (the other is EPA). If you don’t eat seafood and don’t want to take a DHA supplement, it's worth considering. But don't kid yourself. It would take just 1½ teaspoons of salmon to give you the 64 milligrams of DHA that are in a half cup of ToBe Healthy.

Prego Heart Smart also sounds special. It's low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and it has "more than a full serving of vegetables." But so do most other tomato-based pasta sauces.

Heart Smart’s best feature is its sodium (360 mg). You can find lower levels in fabulous premium sauces like Dell'Amore and Cucina Antica. But they’ll cost you two to three times as much.

6. Watch the saturated fat.

It doesn't matter if a pasta sauce has cheese or sausage or if it's bolognese (meat-based). As long as it’s red-and isn't a (creamy) vodka or rosa sauce-you shouldn’t have to worry about saturated fat.

Colavita Garden Style. Bright, fresh flavor with plenty of veggies..

Vodka, rosa, and Alfredo sauces, on the other hand, can have enough cream, cheese, and/or butter to do some damage. A half cup of vodka sauce, for example, ranges from a harmless 1½ grams of sat fat to 11 grams (half a day’s worth). Most fall between two and six grams. (Those at the lower end don't contain much cream.) Unfortunately, Colavita Vodka, the only one to earn an Honorable Mention, didn’t win any taste awards.

The saturated fat numbers on Alfredo labels look similar to the numbers on vodka labels: three to six grams per serving. But a serving of Alfredo sauce is a quarter cup, while a serving of vodka sauce is a half cup. So if you eat a half cup of Buitoni’s Alfredo, for example, you'll end up with 14 grams of sat fat and 280 calories. Pour it on a cup of pasta (200 calories), and it’s like eating a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. A half cup of Whole Foods refrigerated Alfredo sauce dumps 26 grams of sat fat-more than a day's worth-into your lap.

7. Go easy on the pesto.

A traditional pesto-made with basil, extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and garlic-packs 200 to 400 calories, 400 to 800 milligrams of sodium, and three to six grams of saturated fat in every quarter cup. While pesto's fat largely comes from heart healthy oils and nuts (exception: cream supplies most of the three grams of sat fat in Sauces 'n Love Pink Pesto), there’s little you-or your hips or blood pressure-can do about the calories and sodium. Tip: stretch your pesto by thinning it with a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water. You'll use less...and it will coat the pasta better.

8. Don’t fall for extra-virgin olive oil claims.

Dell'Amore Artichoke & Capers. A subtle, satisfying, delicious sauce.

"Made with extra virgin olive oil," say the labels on many Newman’s Own pasta sauces. First of all, there's very little oil in jarred tomato sauce, so the kind of oil probably doesn’t matter. Second, some of the Newman’s Owns that make the claim-the Five Cheese, Marinara, Mushroom Marinara, and Roasted Garlic & Peppers, for example-have more soybean oil than olive oil. (In fact, they have more salt than olive oil.)

In contrast, Bertolli and Eden Organic use only olive oil. So do Amy's Organic, DeLallo, Dell'Amore, Gia Russa, Lucini, Mario Batali, Muir Glen Organic, Sauces 'n Love, Scarpetta, and Victoria. And none of their labels brag about it.

9. Pour your sauce over whole-grain pasta.

Mario Batali Tomato Basil. Quality tomatoes and fresh basil make for a winner.

A cup of white pasta is a decent source of protein (7 grams) and fiber (2½ grams). But whole wheat pasta beats white hands down. While it has no more protein, it delivers more fiber (6 grams per cup), magnesium, vitamin E, and zinc...and has a more interesting taste. And brands like Bionaturae Organic and Whole Foods 365 have found a way to make 100 percent whole wheat pasta that isn't gritty or gummy.

If you can't find those brands, look for Barilla Whole Grain, which is 51 percent whole wheat, or (grittier-tasting) Ronzoni Healthy Harvest Whole Grain, which is 54 percent whole wheat. (Kudos to Barilla for putting the percentage right on the front of the box. We had to call Ronzoni to find out.) Barilla wouldn't tell us what percentage of the grain in its Barilla Plus is whole. But it contains more semolina (refined wheat) than anything else.

If you're on a gluten-free diet, try one of Lundberg's Brown Rice Pastas.

10. Follow your taste buds, but don’t forget your pocketbook.

The two knockout pasta sauces—Rao's and Dell'Amore-are expensive ($7 to $10 a bottle) for a reason. They use the highest-quality ingredients, and they're simmered for far longer than most other sauces. But don't ignore the other brands pictured on pages 12 and 13. They're all worth a taste. You may find one you love...and save a bundle.

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