What’s spaghetti without sauce? If you’re buying one, you likely need the other, so it’s not surprising that they are sold side by side in the supermarket. But which to choose? This is where your pasta meal can go in either of two drastically different directions.
Tomato-based sauces offer the healthful bonus of lycopene, a carotenoid with antioxidant powers. Cooked tomatoes are one of the best sources of this phytochemical because cooking breaks down the cell walls that otherwise hold the lycopene in.
Several years ago, researchers found that people who had a regular intake of lycopene had lower rates of certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. The evidence is not overwhelming enough for a health claim, but strong enough to encourage interest. Most of the studies that suggest benefits of lycopene involved high intakes of cooked tomatoes in various forms. So it could be that other nutrients that shine in tomato sauce, such as vitamin C and potassium, all contribute to tomatoes’ potential health benefits.
Additional nods go to particular red sauces, such as marinara (a simple, classic, meatless sauce that’s typically low in fat and calories) and tomato-basil (full of flavor when made with perfectly ripe summer tomatoes and fresh basil). A healthful adaptation of pasta primavera (“springtime”) substitutes tomato sauce for the butter and heavy cream in the original recipe, with vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, peas, asparagus, green beans—the possibilities are endless) providing phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fiber.
But take it easy with white sauces, which are typically laden with fat and calories. Alfredo sauce, for example, can pack 15 grams of fat and 150 calories in a mere ¼-cup serving. “Light” versions of Alfredo sauce may contain only 5 grams of fat and 60 calories per ¼ cup.
Be wary also of vodka sauces (though tomato-based, they also contain cream and cheese), three-cheese and four-cheese sauces, and those containing ground meat or sausage. But always check the nutrition label, because there are no hard-and-fast rules. Some sauces with healthful-sounding names and descriptions can be nutrition disasters, while some with cheese or meat can have commendable nutrition numbers.
More tips for topping off your pasta:
- In general, you’re best off with a simple marinara sauce, but not always. Compare nutrition labels among brands before you buy.
- Check the serving size first. Most sauces, including red sauces, use a ½ cup as a serving size, but creamy white sauces tend to list a ¼ cup, because you’re supposed to use less of them. To compare them, you’ll have to do some math.
- Look for a sauce that has no more than 2 to 3 grams of saturated fat per serving. Of course, splurging on a richer sauce, on occasion, is okay.
- Shun the sugary options. Look for a sauce with no more than 4 grams of sugar per serving. By listing sugar in several different forms, manufacturers can hide how much is really in the sauce—but the nutrition label will clue you in. Keep in mind that there are 4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon, so a sauce that lists, say, 12 grams of sugar on the label has three teaspoons of sugar per serving.
- Be cautious about sodium. Most store-bought sauces are very high in sodium, and some are sky-high. Look for a sauce with no more than 450 milligrams per serving—the lower the better.
- Make your own sauce. An easy way is to buy canned peeled whole Italian plum tomatoes and tomato paste (watch the sodium) and add your own herbs and spices.
- Match your sauce to your pasta. A delicate sauce calls for thin spaghetti, while chunky sauces match well to pastas with crevices and heft, like rotelle, penne or ziti.
- Whether you buy bottled sauce or make your own, don’t forget to stop in the produce aisle for some fresh vegetables to add to them—broccoli and cauliflower florets, carrots, peppers and zucchini, for example.