The Ultimate Pasta Sauce Shopping Guide
With hundreds of different pasta sauces available at the grocery store, it could take hours to read each nutrition label and choose the best one! Lucky for you, that’s exactly what I’ve done! After reviewing more than 300 pasta sauces, I’ve compared all the nutrition information, looked for added preservatives and other sketchy ingredients, and found the BEST pasta sauces for your family! Whatever type of sauce you’re looking for: tomato sauce, Alfredo sauce, and anything in between, we’ve got the best of the best to make your next shopping trip easy! Note: We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.
This is your ultimate shopping guide for pasta sauce
Pasta sauce is one of those items that seems simple to make, but definitely requires some time and planning to cook from scratch. Personally, I hardly ever have time to make pasta sauce at home, and I usually buy jarred sauce from the store.
But when you’re at the store, there are so many different kinds of pasta sauce! It’s just a big wall of red and white jars, each with its own flashy fonts, delicious sounding names, and health claims. It could take hours to read through them all!
Well, that’s exactly what I did. More than 300 jars of pasta sauce, anything from marinara, Alfredo, veggie-filled, meat-filled, and everything in between.
In this guide, I’ll break down the most important things for you to look for when shopping for pasta sauce. I’ll show you what to look for on the nutrition label, how to avoid certain ingredients, and tips for finding the best deals.
And, we’ll look at the best of the best! The worst of the worst! We’ll compare many of the top national brands and store brands and give you the best options to feed your family!
One thing that I can’t quite calculate in this guide… TASTE! This is some thing so personal, and everyone has their own favorite flavors and preferences. So, I’ll tell you what my family likes, but what I really want to hear is YOUR reviews! Leave a comment at the end of the article and I’ll incorporate your reviews into the guide!
Table of Contents:
Types of pasta sauces
This guide will look at the best pasta sauces in all categories. Most of the sauces I reviewed fit into 5 types:
Classic Red Sauces - classic marinara or Italian-type sauces, made with tomatoes, spices, maybe some garlic and onion (or even wine!) for flavor.
Tomato & Meat Sauces - including meat, like beef, sausage, even bacon!
Tomato & Vegetable Sauces - chunky and hearty vegetable sauces include mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, and peppers and other veggies.
Tomato & Cheese Sauces - tomato sauce gets a cheesey addition with Parmesan, ricotta and other Italian cheeses.
Creamy Sauces - made with milk, cream and lots of cheese, you probably won’t find any tomatoes in Alfredo and other creamy sauces.
Important nutrition information
Jarred pasta sauce is considered a processed food. Processed foods have a bad reputation because they tend to be higher in things like salt, sugar, and preservatives. But that doesn’t mean that processed foods are unhealthy. By being a smart shopper, you can choose a pasta sauce with the best nutrition for your family.
Here are the most important things to look for while you’re shopping:
Sodium: Like other canned or jarred foods, pasta sauce can have a lot of sodium in it. And too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure and put extra strain on your heart and kidneys. And for the littlest members of your family, it’s especially important to choose Low Sodium foods, because their small bodies can’t handle all that salt.
How much sodium should you have?
Adults should aim to have less than 2,300mg of sodium each day.
Children age 1-3 should have less than 1,300mg of sodium each day
Children age 4-8 should have less than 1,900mg of sodium each day
Children age 9-13 should have less than 2,200mg of sodium each day
Children age 14-18 should have less than 2,300mg of sodium each day (the same as adults)
Typically, to help reduce sodium in your meals I would recommend to try my One Easy Tip To Eat Less Salt. Essentially, compare the amount of calories in the food to the amount of sodium, and shoot for less mg of sodium than there are calories. If an average person consumes 2,000 calories a day (and this is a very general estimate), consuming 1 mg of sodium for every calorie would put you at 2,000mg of sodium, which is less than the 2,300mg recommendation.
But, for pasta sauce, you’re almost never going to find one that has less sodium than the amount of calories. Pasta sauces in general are a low calorie food. And in my review of more than 300 pasta sauces, only a handful had less sodium than calories!
So, instead, try these tips to make a meal with less sodium:
Ideally, look for a pasta sauce with 250mg of sodium or less per serving. Of all the sauces I compared, I would consider this a low amount.
If you can’t find any with that little sodium, compare a few brands and choose the one with the least sodium.
Use half the jar of pasta sauce mixed with a can of low sodium diced or crushed tomatoes. You’ll likely have better luck finding a low sodium option with canned diced or crushed tomatoes, and by mixing them together, you’ll end up with less sodium per serving.
Avoid adding salt to other parts of your meal to keep the overall sodium amount low. So don’t salt the pasta water before you cook it. And try to keep the salt shaker out of sight and off the kitchen table.
Sugar: Like sodium, too much added sugar can have negative effects on your health. There are hidden sources of added sugars in many grocery store foods, and pasta sauce is no exception. In this guide, more than half of all pasta sauces contained added sugars!
While there usually isn’t a large amount of added sugar in pasta sauce, it’s worth paying attention to. In the sauces I looked at, there was a wide range of sugar amounts, from 3g per serving to 10g per serving.
Some of this sugar will be natural, from the tomatoes. But some of it will be added sugar during processing.
Why does tomato sauce need any added sugar? According to this Epicurious article, sugar helps to balance out an acidic tomato sauce. Depending on the types of tomatoes, their sweetness, and any other acidic ingredients in the sauce, some sauces just need a little bit of sugar to make it taste just right. This is also common practice with homemade pasta sauces.
Fat: While most tomato-based sauces contain fat from healthier sources like olive oil, once you get into the creamy sauces (like Alfredo), you’ll find sauces that have a lot of fat from cheese, butter, and cream. The fats found in these foods, called saturated fats, are fine in moderation, but if you’re watching your weight or trying to keep your heart healthy, it’s a good idea to watch the overall amount of these types of fats.
When choosing tomato-based sauces, look for little to no Saturated Fat on the nutrition label.
And when choosing creamy sauces, you can compare labels to look for less Saturated Fat. But, more importantly, stick to the portion size. For many creamy sauces, a portion size is only 1/4 cup of sauce, compared to 1/2 cup portion size for tomato sauces. That means that the nutrition information you’ll see on the label is for only 1/4 cup of sauce, and if you use more than that, you’re eating more Saturated Fat than you see on the label. By sticking to the portion size on the label, you’ll help keep your saturated fats in check.
Ingredients you’ll see when shopping for pasta sauce:
There’s a huge variety in the quality of ingredients in pasta sauces. You might think “the cheaper the product, the cheaper the ingredients”. But this isn’t always true. There are lots of great affordable options that use natural and high-quality ingredients. Here are some of the most common ingredients you’ll see in pasta sauces, besides the basics like tomatoes. Many are totally fine, but others, what I call “shady” ingredients, I recommend to avoid as much as possible.
Not to worry ingredients:
Citric Acid - A completely safe and natural additive, citric acid is a preservative that keeps your pasta sauce fresh and shelf-stable. Citric Acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits like lemon and lime, but the kind used in foods is more concentrated, so less is needed. It can give foods a sour taste, so sometimes pasta sauces with citric acid also have some sugar added to balance out the sour flavor.
Yeast Extract - Used as a flavor enhancer to give some pasta sauces more of a savory or umami flavor. In my review, yeast extract was more commonly used in creamy sauces or sauces with cheese in it, rather than classic tomato-based sauces.
Modified Egg Yolk - A type of enzyme-treated egg yolk that can improve the texture and creaminess of creamy pasta sauces. Modified egg yolk can also help keep a creamy pasta sauce from separating (it acts as an emulsifier) and improves shelf life.
While none of these ingredients are unsafe or unhealthy, use of these ingredients could be a hint that your sauce is made with cheaper or poorer quality ingredients. When reviewing ingredient lists, I always ask myself “why does this need to be here?”.
My advice: try to find a sauce that has the most natural ingredients, closest to how you would make it at home. And when that can’t happen, choose a sauce with as few of these shady ingredients as possible.
Soybean Oil & Canola Oil - Olive Oil, or better yet, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, is what you’re really hoping to see when you buy pasta sauce. Many brands use olive oil but add other less expensive oils like soybean oil or canola oil into their sauces as well. All of these oils are safe, but olive oil will give you the best flavor.
Calcium Chloride - Added to pasta sauces as a firming agent, to help the tomatoes keep their shape. The FDA considers Calcium Chloride to be safe, but some avoid products with it because it is a highly processed additive. In my review, many of the sauces that contained diced tomatoes also include calcium chloride, but sauces that use ground tomatoes don’t use calcium chloride, probably because there is no need for ground tomatoes to keep their shape (they’re already ground up!).
Gums (Xanthan Gum, Modified Gum Arabic, Guar Gum, etc) - Gums are used in many creamy pasta sauces as a thickener, to give it a nice mouth feel. It can also be used in ‘low fat’ or ‘light’ sauces to give it a nice texture that you might be missing with less oils and fats in the sauce. The FDA considers gums safe, but some avoid products with added gums because they are highly processed additives.
Sodium Phosphate - While some foods have sodium phosphate in them naturally (nuts, meat, fish, poultry, eggs), it is added to some processed foods to help retain moisture and improve shelf-life. The FDA considers these additives safe, but some choose to avoid them because they may be harmful in large doses, especially for those with kidney disease or heart conditions. While the amount of sodium phosphate in foods is very small, if you eat a lot of processed foods, you might be eating more sodium phosphate than you think.
Potassium Metabisulfite - A preservative used to improve the shelf-life of creamy sauces like Alfredo sauce. The FDA considers this additive safe for consumption, but people with an allergy to sulfite may want to avoid foods containing Potassium Metabisulfite.
Natural Flavors - Natural flavors are very common in processed foods and beverages. But, there is no actual definition for ‘natural flavor’. All that’s required is that it comes from a ‘natural’ source, like a fruit or vegetable, spice, edible plant material (bark, roots, yeast), meat, dairy or eggs.
Natural flavors are different from ‘artificial flavors’, which are man-made chemicals. But just because an ingredient is called ‘natural flavor’ doesn’t mean it’s totally natural!
Even though the main flavor comes from a natural source, the flavoring is still made in a lab and can be a mix of many different additives, including some that are artificial. Food manufacturers don’t have to disclose what they use to make natural flavors, which can be stressful for people with rare or unknown food allergies, and they may want to avoid any food with ‘natural flavors’.
To sum up, the FDA does consider natural flavors safe, but they are not any healthier than artificial flavors, and they are certainly not more “natural”.
4 steps for choosing a great pasta sauce:
1. Look at the cost per ounce
Even though it may look like pasta sauces come in 2 sizes (small and large), there are many subtle differences in size. For the ‘small’ jars, I’ve seen anything ranging from 14oz to 16oz. And for ‘large’ jars, I’ve seen sizes ranging from 23oz to 26oz.
When you’re trying to find a good deal, look at the cost per ounce. This is calculated as the total cost divided by the number of ounces in the jar. So a 23oz jar of sauce that costs $3 calculates to $0.13 per ounce. The cost per ounce is almost always shown on the cost sticker on the supermarket shelf, usually in the corner of the label.
In this review, I found a wide range of cost for pasta sauces:
Organic sauces cost about 16% more than non-organic sauces ($0.14 per ounce for organic, $0.12 per ounce for non-organic)
Name brand sauces cost about 54% more than store brand sauces ($0.14 for name brand, $0.09 for store brand)
The least expensive sauces were Walmart and Target brand non-organic sauces, which both cost just $0.04 per ounce.
The most expensive sauces were Rao’s Homemade Alfredo sauces, which cost $0.60 per ounce!
On average, pasta sauces cost $0.13 per ounce.
2. Don’t choose ‘Organic’ just because it’s ‘Organic’
Organic pasta sauces aren’t necessarily any healthier than regular pasta sauces. They certainly can be, but it’s not because the ingredients are organic.
In this review, I did find that organic sauces tend to be a little bit better nutrition-wise:
Organic sauces are less likely to have added sugar than non-organic sauces (37% of organic sauces have added sugar vs 59% of non-organic sauces)
Organic sauces have a little less sodium per serving (average of 409mg) than non-organic sauces (average of 423mg)
Organic sauces tend to have fewer “shady” ingredients (average of 0.8 ingredients) than non-organic sauces (average of 2 ingredients)
Organic sauces tend to have less saturated fat (average of 0.4g) than non-organic sauces (average of 0.9g)
So while many organic products may have less sodium, less sugar, less saturated fat, and less shady ingredients, don’t assume they all do!
3. Choose sauces that are low in sodium, added sugar, and “shady” ingredients
I recommend to look for:
Less than 250mg of sodium per serving
Less than 2g of added sugar per serving
Less than 5% of the recommended daily amount of Saturated Fat
0 grams of Trans Fat
Simple ingredients. Avoid those “shady” ingredients you read about earlier like soy/canola oil, ‘natural flavor’, gums, sulfites and phosphates.
4. Don’t shy away from store brands
Some of my top picks are actually store brands! There is a common misconception that store brand foods are made with cheaper ingredients and don’t taste as good as name brands. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes this is true.
But, as I wrote about in Store Brands vs. Name Brands, many times store brand foods are exactly the same as name brands, even made in the same factory, just with different packaging. In this article, supermarket Registered Dietitian Heather Steele, RD/LD, reports that many store branded foods are actually produced locally and therefore may be fresher and use less preservatives than some name brand foods.
In this guide, store brands are often just as nutritious and high-quality as name brand sauces:
Store brand sauces have about the same number of shady ingredients (average of 1.6 ingredients) as name brands (average of 1.8 ingredients)
Store brand sauces have a tiny bit more sodium (average of 427mg) than name brands (average of 417mg)
Store brand sauces have less saturated fat (average of 0.4g) than name brands (average of 0.9g)
However, store brands are more likely to have added sugars than name brands (63% of store brands have added sugar vs 52% of name brands)
Top picks for pasta sauce
The moment you’ve been waiting for! I’ve reviewed over 300 pasta sauces, so you don’t have to! Using my 4 steps for choosing a great pasta sauce (cost per ounce, nutrition information, simple ingredients), I’ve rated and ranked pasta sauces from the top pasta sauce brands in the country, including:
Field Day Organic
Great Value (Walmart)
Stop & Shop
Best Classic Tomato-Based Sauces
My family’s personal favorite sauce is the ShopRite store brand Wholesome Pantry. Their Tomato and Basil sauce ranked high for being low in sodium (185mg), free of added sugar and shady ingredients, and very affordable for an organic sauce.
Best Tomato & Cheese Sauces
With relatively little sodium for a cheesey sauce (290mg), and no saturated fat or shady ingredients, the Francesco Rinaldi Three Cheese Sauce is my top pick for a tomato & cheese sauce.
Target’s store brand sauce Market Pantry Three Cheese Pasta Sauce is another top pick for tomato & cheese sauces. It’s very affordable (only $.04 per ounce!), contains few shady ingredients, and no saturated fat.
Best Tomato & Meat Sauces
Another top choice from Francesco Rinaldi is their Meat Flavored Pasta Sauce. It contains no shady ingredients, is low in saturated fat (1g) and is affordable ($0.07 per ounce)
RAGÚ has a new line of sauces called Simply, which contain no added sugar, only use Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and other natural ingredients like garlic and onion. I like their Simply Flavored with Meat Sauce because it’s got no shady ingredients or added sugar, and it’s low in saturated fat (0.5g).
Best Tomato & Vegetable Sauces
Francesco Rinaldi’s Garden Combo was the top choice in tomato with vegetable sauces! It’s full of zucchini, celery, carrots, mushrooms, green bell pepper, and onion, and free of shady ingredients.
Whole Foods store brand 365 has a top pick with their Organic Portobello Mushroom Pasta Sauce. It’s got no added sugar, no shady ingredients, and is an affordable organic option costing only $0.10 per ounce.
Best Creamy Sauces
The two top creamy sauce options both come from RAGÚ’s Simply line of sauces. The Creamy Alfredo Pasta Sauce and Garlic Parmesan Pasta Sauce both include cauliflower as a star ingredient that helps keep the fat content down. While both use gums and phosphates to provide a good texture and ensure a long shelf-life, they are low in saturated fat (1.5g), relatively low in sodium (310-320mg per 1/4 cup serving), and are affordable options ($0.10 per ounce).
Best Splurge-Worthy Sauces
For times that you’re willing to spend a little more on your pasta sauce (or your store’s got some great sales happening!), these are the top choices for fancier pasta sauces:
One of my all-time favorite sauces is the Victoria line of pasta sauce. They taste so good it tastes just like homemade! Their line of low sodium sauces only have 120mg of sodium, and no added sugar or shady ingredients. Get a pack of 6 jars on Amazon for about $44, or look at your local Walmart or ShopRite for a good deal.
Recipes using pasta sauce
Now that you’ve got a ton of great information about what kind of pasta sauce to buy, what are you going to make with it?? Here are some easy and delicious recipes using pasta sauce, from some of my favorite Registered Dietitians and food bloggers:
Ricotta & Beef Zucchini RollUps - Julie Andrews at The Gourmet RD
Easy Veggie Pasta Bake from Sarah Schlichter at Bucket List Tummy
Healthy Chicken Parmesan Skillet with Farro from Platings + Pairings
Avocado Summer Lasagna from Maggie Farley at Meals with Maggie -
Lentil Stuffed Red Cabbage Rolls from Stacey Homemaker
One Pot Italian Chicken and Orzo from Accidental Happy Baker
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For Registered Dietitians: Get the raw data to use with your patients and clients!
Registered Dietitians can purchase the master spreadsheet with all the nutrition information on RD2RD.com.
The spreadsheet includes:
Product name and size (oz)
Nutritional information (Sodium, Potassium, Total/Added Sugar, Total Fat/Saturated Fat/Trans Fat,
Price information (current as of September 2019, taken from major national retailers like Walmart and Target)
You can sort, filter and otherwise analyze the data in any way you’d like, so you can better help your clients find the best products for their lifestyle and nutritional needs!