The Store-Bought Tomato Sauce Guide — Know What to Buy & What to Avoid

Learn how to shop for this pantry staple.

By Victoria Giardina
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This Pantry Staple Has Had a Bad Rep — But Does It Deserve It? (3:39)

I come from an Italian family, where making sauce from scratch is almost equivalent to breathing, but not everyone has the time or motivation to do it once a week. With busy work schedules, it's more convenient to keep a jar or two of sauce in the pantry for quick dinners. But what exactly is in store-bought tomato sauce and are all brands created equal? 

With an aisle full of jarred tomato sauces in the supermarket, it can be somewhat challenging to determine which one is good for you. Mark Schatzker, food journalist and author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, helps clear the confusion with his simple tips for buying store-bought tomato sauce so you can enjoy a classic Italian staple conveniently (and with nutritional benefits, too). 

Look For Whole Tomatoes

Nothing quite beats the taste of a fresh, juicy tomato. When you're shopping for store-bought sauce, don't compromise on this flavor. Schatzker says you should always check the label to make sure there are "whole-peeled" tomatoes listed. Whole tomatoes "are naturally sweeter, have lower acidity, and have better flavor," Schatzker says. Usually lower quality store-bought brands swap tomatoes for tomato paste, which changes both the flavor and texture of the sauce. Due to less flavor, manufacturers will then add in sugar and other unhealthy ingredients to help improve the taste. 

The Fewer Ingredients, the Better

Less is more when it comes to tomato sauce, specifically in its ingredients. According to Schatzker, a sauce-brand insider explained that when cooking tomatoes for sauce, "the natural acidity and gelatin-like substance in the tomato bind the sauce together." As a result, you get a tasty flavor and smooth consistency that doesn't require additional ingredients. Unhealthy additives are commonly found in foods in order to cut down the price and make product with lower quality ingredients taste better. It's always important to read the nutrition label on the store-bought sauce you're buying to make sure you're getting the best quality food. If you are deciding between two jars, the one with fewer ingredients is the healthier option.

Avoid Cheese, Herb, & Meat Ingredients

In addition to selecting a jar with fewer ingredients, avoiding cheese, herb, and meat additions to your tomato sauce is key. It is easy to think that this delicious trio would add more flavor, but instead, it adds more calories (and preservatives too). One cup of plain ol' tomato sauce has about 102 calories, whereas a jar with added cheeses, herbs, and meats can contain about 361 calories — that is more than triple the calories in just one serving! If you want meat, cheese, or herbs in your sauce add them fresh yourself (try this guilt-free spaghetti and meatballs recipe).

Look For Sauce High in Fat and Low in Sugar

Don't let the term "high fat" fool you. According to Schatzker, healthier sauces have more fat because they are made from olive oil instead of soybean or vegetable oil. He says the healthier fats are found in greater quantities, which are typically found in higher-end sauces that cost more than six dollars per jar. 

Going along with higher-end options, Schatzker tested different jars of tomato sauce and found that less sugar content was typically found in jars that cost six dollars or more per jar. "Because the higher-priced brands used imported tomatoes that tend to taste better, there was less of a need to add sugar," Schatzker states. "The sugar the lower-cost brands put in the jar masks some of the unpleasant flavors that come with cutting corners in the production process," he continues. Overall, choose the natural flavors from the tomatoes instead of taking the added sugar route. 

"Classic" or "Old World" Pasta Labels 

Be careful with labels that sensationalize the pasta sauce you are about to buy. Many companies put words like "classic" or "old world" on the labels to entice you into thinking it's better or healthier for you. This is probably not the case, so you should check the nutrition label. 

However, if you are looking at a more expensive sauce brand, or thinking of buying the sauce from your favorite Italian restaurant, these words might actually be indicative of a healthier, homemade sauce. Just make sure to always check the nutrition label of the store-bought sauce you are buying for fat and sugar content, as well as the list of ingredients to ensure you're making the right purchase. 

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Article written by Victoria Giardina