Have you been to the supermarket, strolled down the pasta aisle to pick out some ready-made pasta sauce, only to be stumped by the variety of sauces available to you? What’s the difference between “Traditional Italian” and “Marinara Italian”? When it says “Bolognese with red wine”, is there really red wine in there? Further down the aisle, you may see cans of “peeled plum tomato”, “chopped tomato”, or “tomato puree”, and beside them, smaller cans of “tomato paste”. What’s the difference between all these products? Aren’t canned foods bad (I address that in another article here)? Is tomato paste the same as tomato ketchup? If you haven’t had these thoughts, you should, because it can open up a whole new world of possibilities for you, when you make your next tomato-based dish. So here it is, the ultimate guide on the differences between (almost) all the tomato-based products out there.
Ready-to-eat pasta sauce (tomato-based)
These are pretty much made of a combination of tomato paste/puree (more on that below), diced tomato, oil, and salt; other vegetables, herbs and spices may also be added depending on the flavour that’s marketed. For example, “chunky pasta sauce” may contain carrot and onion, “Bolognese with mushroom” will have mushrooms, and “Bolognese with red wine” actually does have some red wine in there. Certain brands may add thickeners or sugar, which makes the sauce a more appealing consistency and reduces tartness, respectively. Unfortunately, when these jars are labelled “Bolognese”, they do not contain minced meat like traditional Bolognese. What it probably means is that they are flavoured to accommodate a Bolognese sauce. You would have to add your own minced meat in the cooking process if you wanted a true Bolognese.
Essentially, because these sauces have been flavoured, they are ready to be poured immediately onto pasta, which makes for a quick meal. However, make sure you do these two things when you choose to use these sauces:
1. Make sure you balance your meal
When you have pasta alone with plain sauce, you increase your chances of over-eating carbohydrates at each meal. Simply add a serve of vegetables and protein to complete your dish. Vegetables that go well with tomato sauce include carrots, onion, celery, zucchini, eggplant…or even more tomatoes. In terms of protein, you can never go wrong with minced beef; other options include tuna or minced pork (if you don’t eat beef).
2. Compare nutrition information panels
Because these sauces are marketed as ready-to-eat, they have to taste delicious, which is why oil, salt, and sugar have been added. However, oil and sugar increase the caloric content of these sauces, while salt in excess increases blood pressure. As with all other factory-produced, ready-to-eat foods, you have no control over the amount of each ingredient used in the product. If you’re choosing these products for convenience, make sure you compare their nutrition information panels. Look for an option that is lower in calories or salt, depending on your dietary needs. If time is not an issue and you would like to explore healthier alternatives, or prefer cheaper options, read on.
These are usually labelled as “chopped tomatoes”, “peeled plum tomatoes”, “whole peeled tomatoes”, or “crushed tomatoes”, and come in cans. They contain actual tomatoes in different forms (whole, chopped, diced, or crushed), tomato juice, and occasionally salt. As they do not contain any oil or sugar, they have less than half the calories of ready-to-eat pasta sauces. This makes them more suitable for people with medical conditions or diets that require salt, sugar, or fat restriction. You can easily flavour canned tomatoes by adding pepper, herbs and spices (which are calorie-free) to get a lower-calorie sauce.
Personally, I like to use these because they are budget-friendly, being cheaper than ready-to-eat sauces. I can also flavour them to my taste preferences with other ingredients. Furthermore, they are time-saving as they do not need to be chopped, cooked, and reduced, the way fresh tomatoes do. These canned versions have a robust tomato flavour, from being picked at their freshest and pre-cooked until reduced to a nice syrupy consistency. Now, if you’re surprised that I’m recommending canned food, check out my post “Canned food can be good for you”.
Tomato puree would be similar to canned tomatoes above, except that the tomatoes are blended, rendering it smoother in consistency. If you like your tomatoes smooth and not chunky, you can use these to make pasta sauce or soup.
Tomato paste on the other hand, is tomato that has been cooked down and blended up, yielding a thick, homogenous texture. It’s commonly used as a spread for pizza bases, but can also be mixed with some water to yield some sort of a tomato puree for sauces and soups. I’ve used it to thicken up and complement a batch of home-made tomato sauce once, when I did not have enough tomatoes. It worked perfectly and added greater flavour and richness to my sauce.
Lastly, we have our all-time favourite—tomato ketchup. Its ingredient list may have tomatoes listed at the very top, at 80%, but remember, it has been cooked down and drastically reduced with sugar and salt. That explains why two tablespoons of tomato ketchup is equivalent in calories as a 100mls (or seven tablespoons) of canned tomatoes, at approximately 30 calories. So, remember how energy dense tomato ketchup is the next time you douse it over your fries.
That brings us the end of the main differences between all the different kinds of tomato-based products. They may be similar in its main ingredient, but can have very different caloric contents, depending on the amount of oil and sugar added, and how condensed the product is. I hope this clarifies any confusion or misconceptions you’ve had about tomato-based products. If you found this useful, do share it with friends and family whom you think would put this knowledge to good use!