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Is Your Pasta Sauce Healthy? Here are 5 Ways to Tell

open 20 oz jar of Vervana organic marinara healthy tomato pasta sauceI’ve never been shy when it comes to sharing stories about my Italian heritage and my love of traditional Italian food. But once I get specific about my favorites, a lot of people are surprised that I regularly include pasta and red sauce on my menu. Sometimes I’ll have the sauce as much as 2-3 times a week!

“Doc, don’t you worry about all the sugar and additives?”

It’s a fair question. I’ve made a career out of advising folks to stay away from foods that digest quickly and raise blood sugar (like many pastas), and to choose whole foods instead of products that come in cans, jars, plastic, and boxes.

But the truth? In this case, I really don’t – and you don’t need to either, as long as you shop smart and look for healthy pasta sauces and pastas.

The Secret Rules for Eating Italian Classics

A key part of living a high-vibrational lifestyle is choosing foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. In a perfect world, that would mean eating fresh, whole, organic foods 100 percent of the time.

In the real world, though, that goal’s just not realistic. What you have to do instead is educate yourself about what should and shouldn’t be in your food. That way, when you look at a label, it’s easy to pick out products that have higher, healthier energy levels. These are the choices that will satisfy your taste buds without throwing your body and health out of balance.

Where pasta is concerned, that means looking for products that are less refined and that include higher fiber and protein content. As I mention in this The Secret to Healthy Pasta Dinners blog, traditional white pastas are really carb-heavy and can do a number on your health when eaten in excess. That’s why, if you like to eat more than a cup of pasta in one sitting, it’s important to balance the carbs in pasta with healthy fats and proteins so that your insulin levels don’t skyrocket. My favorite way to do this is with an organic, high-protein pasta. Just add some healthy pasta sauce and drizzle it with some olive oil for added healthy fat! 

For more pasta tips, download my free Pasta Diet ebook.

Vervana organic marinara sauce back label with nutrition facts and ingredients
Back label of Vervana Organic Marinara Sauce – check out the ingredients and nutrition facts!

When it comes to healthy pasta sauces, similar rules apply, though in those cases you should be on the lookout for things you don’t want in the jar.

 

To give you some idea of what those are, I went to a local supermarket chain and picked up a few of the pasta sauces sold by big manufacturers. Then I compared their ingredients with what’s in my own Vervana Organic Marinara and Arrabbiata sauces – the family recipes that I learned to make from my Sicilian grandfather, and that I’ve refined into what I consider the gold standard for healthy pasta sauce.

Vervana organic arrabbiata spicy tomato sauce back label with nutrition facts and ingredients
Back label of Vervana Organic Arrabbiata Sauce

For the most part, our recipes were pretty similar: tomatoes, oil, garlic, onions, spices, salt, and so forth. Some of them actually weren’t that bad from a health perspective. None of them, though, checked all the boxes where healthy sauce is concerned, which is why I think mine are still on top when it comes to clean, high-vibrational eating…

What Makes a Pasta Sauce Healthy?

Here are 5 basic things I look for when evaluating whether a pasta sauce is healthy or not:

No Added Sugar

not a healthy pasta sauce because it contains soybean oil and added sugar
Even organic marinara sauces may contain added sugars and lesser quality oils.

I’m always on the lookout for sugar added to any food, and as general rule steer clear whenever I can. With tomato sauces like marinara or arrabbiata, a little sugar is needed to get the flavor right so you should pay attention to the type of sugar or sweetener added.

Any artificial sweetener should be an automatic no. The fact that they’re artificial is an immediate disqualifier in my book, plus they wreak havoc with metabolism. Plain old sugar – which was listed on several labels I looked at – is also a no. If it’s white sugar, it’s empty from a vibrational perspective. It’s literally been refined to death and has nothing to offer nutritionally. You also don’t want sugar from other sources, like corn and beets, most of which are genetically modified.

What’s left?

I use organic cherry tomatoes and carrots to sweeten my sauces. The naturally high levels of sugar in carrots give the sauce a good flavor, and using whole vegetables and fruits brings other nutritional benefits to the table – fiber and antioxidants being at the top of the list.

Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Most tomato sauce recipes call for some type of oil, which gives the sauce body and consistency.  Here, you should look for what type of oil is used.

a healthy sauce for pasta has no added sugar, like this Vervana Organic Marinara that is sweetened only with carrotsPersonally, I always use organic extra virgin olive oil in my sauce. The health benefits of olive oil can’t be beat, plus I think it gives the sauce a more authentic flavor. (I’m speculating here, but possibly that’s because olive oil is native to the Mediterranean and a staple in a lot of family recipes handed down through the generations.)

The store brand marinara sauces I compared used a few different oils, some healthier than others. Olive oil was certainly among them, but I also found a few that listed canola or soybean oil among their ingredients.  

You don’t want to touch soybean oil with a 10-foot pole. Not only is it much higher in omega-6 fats, which can be inflammatory in excess, but it is most likely GMO (over 90 percent of U.S. soybeans are), and thus heavily sprayed with pesticides. Canola oil isn’t much better – it’s highly processed, and about 90 percent of the canola grown in the US is also GMO.  Olive oil is a much better source of healthy monounsaturated fat than both canola and soy, which is why I always look for it on a sauce label. 

Reasonable Salt Levels

Another ingredient you’ll see on a lot of pasta sauce labels is calcium chloride – a form of salt that’s usually added as a firming agent to keep the tomato chunks from going mushy.

This concerns me from the standpoint of knowing how much salt is actually in a sauce. The Nutrition Facts label accounts for the amount of sodium that’s included, but it doesn’t count calcium chloride. That means you could be taking in a lot more salt than you think.

sea salt crystals are natural salts
Photo credit: © Marian Vejcik @123rf

Another issue is that unless you’re using a sea salt – like I do – the salt is highly refined. Not only is it stripped of the other trace minerals that co-occur with it, but chemicals may be added for bleaching and anti-caking purposes.