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The healthiest pasta sauces get most of their fat from olive oil (marinara) or olive oil and nuts (pesto), not cream or cheese (alfredo). And the good guys don’t pile too much salt or sugar on top of your spaghetti. Here’s how to find them. Check the photos for some great-tasting Best Bites and Honorable Mentions.

1. Don’t overdo the salt.

It’s the Achilles’ heel of tomato-based sauces. Many have 500-plus milligrams of sodium in every half-cup serving. Why go there, when others taste great with 350 mg or less? Those are our Honorable Mentions.

Watching every milligram? Check out our Best Bites, which don’t top 250 mg per serving. The Victoria Low Sodium line is a standout, sodium- and taste-wise.

For pesto, head to the refrigerator case. That’s where you’ll find the freshest-tasting pestos that also keep sodium in Honorable Mention territory. In contrast, shelf-stable jarred pestos can hit 600 to 700 mg or more in every ¼ cup. Yikes.

2. No added sugar needed.

Most sauces that add sugar toss in only a few grams, but who needs any? Our Best Bites have none, and our Honorable Mentions can have a trivial 1 gram. Slow-cooking tomatoes concentrates their sweetness, so our winning sauces already have at least a teaspoon of naturally occurring sugar anyway.

3. You get what you pay for.

Why do some sauces with less sodium—and no added sugar—taste better than others? They start with premium ingredients like whole tomatoes instead of tomato purée (which is typically tomato paste plus water). But that comes at a cost. A top taste pick like Rao’s will set you back $7 to $9 a jar. Victoria is a couple of bucks cheaper.

Solution: Stock up during sales, and refrigerate or freeze leftovers. You can also freeze jars of fresh pesto. They defrost quickly in a pot of cold water.

4. ”Sensitive” sauce: Do you need it?

Prego, Lucini, and Rao’s all offer “Sensitive” varieties of their marinara. That means no onions or garlic. Ditto for all Fody’s sauces. That can help if you need to limit certain FODMAPs to help ease the gas and bloating of irritable bowel syndrome.

But for other GI issues, nixing garlic and onions isn’t a cure-all. And no garlic or onion means the flavor takes a hit. Most sensitive sauces verge on too-sweet (even though they toss in other veggies like celery). And if you’re also cutting back on sodium, you’re already looking at a sweeter-tasting sauce.

5. Stretch your pesto.

Basil aside, pesto is largely puréed pine nuts and olive oil, plus a bit of parmesan. That’s mostly healthy fats, but it all adds up to 200 to 300 calories in each ¼ cup.

To lower a pesto pasta’s calorie density add vegetables. Sautéed broccoli, asparagus, or bell peppers all pair well with pesto’s nutty, hearty taste.

Or thin the pesto with pasta cooking water (a tablespoon or two for every ¼ cup). Bonus: That will make the pesto coat the pasta even better.

6. Make your own?

Premium jarred marinara might taste like the sauce has been simmering on your stovetop all day. But nothing compares to the basil-y brightness of a pesto that you’ve just whipped up at home.

Click here for The Healthy Cook’s Almost Classic Basil Pesto recipe. (The secret ingredient: baby spinach.) To preserve its punch, don’t combine any pesto with your pasta until you’re ready to eat.

7. Pick a healthy base.

Fiber-rich, nutritious whole wheat pastas taste better than ever. So do gluten-free pastas made from lentils, chickpeas, or other beans, which have more fiber than gluten-free brown rice pasta.

8. Try one of our top taste picks.

line up of 5 pasta suaces
Marlena Koch - CSPI.

From left to right:

  • Rao’s Tomato Herb: Oregano, basil, garlic...the gang’s all here! It’s hard to miss with an Honorable Mention from Rao’s. Mmm.
  • Classico Roasted Garlic: Plenty of flavor to a fraction of the price of premium jarred sauces.
  • Victoria Low Sodium Marinara: Low- or no-salt added sauces can taste too sweet. This low-sodium one (120 mg) is just right.
  • Rao’s Vodka: No cream here. Cheese? Just a tad. Hello, Honorable Mention! For some heat, try Rao’s Vodka Arrabbiata.
  • Trader Joe’s Vegan Kale, Cashew & Basil Pesto: You won’t miss the parmesan in this vegan pesto.

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The best pasta sauces

Best Bites (✔✔) have no added sugar and no more than 250 milligrams of sodium per serving (½ cup of sauce or ¼ cup of pesto). Honorable Mentions () can have up to 1 gram of added sugar and 350 mg of sodium. Sauces and pestos are ranked from least to most sodium, then added sugar.

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