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Pasta with sauce

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The question: I usually buy bottled pasta sauce. What should I look for on labels to choose a healthier sauce?

The answer: Not everyone has the time to cook pasta sauce from scratch. Using a commercially prepared pasta sauce can be a big time saver on a busy weeknight. But not all are equal on the nutrition front. Some are high in sodium and others are packed with cholesterol-raising saturated fat. So you're smart to consult the label before deciding which pasta sauce to buy.

For starters, choose a tomato-based sauce. Most are low in saturated fat and all offer plenty of vitamins A and C and lycopene, an antioxidant that's linked with protection from prostate cancer. The main ingredients are tomatoes, water, vegetable oil, salt (often lots of it) and spices. Keep in mind that extras such as cheese, meat and cream add calories, salt and fat, especially saturated fat.

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Alfredo, vodka and pesto sauces are higher in fat and calories than most tomato-based sauces.

Alfredo and vodka sauces contain cream, which sends the saturated fat numbers soaring. Pesto sauces are high in fat, but it's mainly healthy unsaturated fat from vegetable oil and pine nuts – these are healthy fats. There will be some saturated fat if Parmesan cheese is added. Most pesto sauces have 50 to 90 calories in a tablespoon.

My advice is to read the label and choose a sauce that has in one serving (1/2 cup) no more than 70 calories and one gram of saturated fat, and less than 400 milligrams of sodium.

Look at the daily value percentages too. A daily value (DV) of 15 per cent or more for vitamins A and C mean that one serving is a good source of those nutrients.

One last tip: Although nutrition information typically provided for 1/2 cup of pasta sauce, most people pour at least one cup on their noodles. So you'll need to double the numbers.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at dietitian@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on the Globe website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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