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What's Hiding in Your Favorite Sauces—And How to Make Them Healthier

Emily Navarro, RDN
Sep 24, 2019

Your grandma Betty’s bolognese. Your favorite Asian restaurant’s teriyaki. Certain sauces hold a special place in your heart, right? The thing is, some of our most beloved ones can also be a sneaky source of less-than-healthy ingredients like sugar and sodium.

Since we’d never want to deprive you and your tastebuds of those craveable flavors, our chefs and nutritionists figured out a few ways to eliminate or minimize unhealthy ingredients in healthy sauce recipes that make those sauces healthier and possibly even more delicious:

Are sauces bad for you?

Technically, it’s not the sauces that are bad for you—it’s the ingredients that are commonly used in sauces. The two most common repeat offenders? Sugar and sodium. Many traditional versions of sauces are high in sugar, which adds to your total calorie count. Premade tomato, steak and barbecue sauces for example are packed with added sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup. Traditional sauces are also often loaded with sodium. It’s added to increase the flavor profile but can easily exceed your daily value.

Healthy Marinara Sauce

What’s hiding in traditional versions: Added Sugar

Marinara, even in traditional recipes, often has added sugars to balance the acidity of tomatoes. But some varieties go too far, adding excess amounts of sweeteners such as corn syrup, glucose, dextrose, (or any other word ending in -ose!)

When picking out a jarred version of a healthy marinara sauce, aim for less than 5g of total sugar per serving and check the ingredients for the type used—avoid those made with high fructose corn syrup in favor of more natural sources of sweetness like honey. Ingredients are listed on the label in descending order, so find a sauce that lists sugar much further down. We use a touch of honey in our healthy marinara sauce recipe, which has 37% less sugar than popular store-bought brands.

Healthy Teriyaki Sauce

What’s hiding in traditional versions: Sodium and MSG

Both sweet and savory, teriyaki sauce can raise a few red flags nutritionally. Just one tablespoon can have up to 700mg of sodium—that’s almost a third of your daily limit. And who eats just one tablespoon?

The sauce gets its umami flavor from soy sauce, an ingredient that is notoriously high in sodium; some soy sauces also contain MSG. Decrease sodium without sacrificing that savory umami flavor by using tamari and/or coconut aminos, like we do in our healthy teriyaki sauce recipe.

Though tamari and soy sauce have similar amounts of sodium, tamari has a richer flavor, so you can use less of it. Coconut aminos have a similar consistency and taste to soy sauce, but is wheat and soy free, has no MSG, and less sodium.

Healthy Gravy

What’s hiding in traditional versions: Thickeners and artificial colors

Traditional gravy gets its color and texture from browning flour in pan drippings which are then simmered with a liquid until thickened. Jarred varieties skip this step altogether and are thickened with a combo of refined starches and hydrolyzed proteins—ultra-processed ingredients which may be linked to weight gain, according to a recent study.

Artificial color, like caramel color, also often gets added to the mix to mimic that rich simmered-on-the-stovetop color. Instead, we like to thicken our dairy-free gravy recipe with almond butter, which gives it that creamy, crave-able texture along with a healthy dose of unsaturated fats.

Taste some of our cleaner sauces in these dishes: Cauliflower-Shell Bolognese,  Chicken Teriyaki with Brown Rice and Veggies, and Chicken and Rice Pilaf with Fall-Spiced Carrots.

*Freshly Marinara sauce: 5g sugar; leading jarred marinara sauce avg 8g sugar per ½ cup serving.

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What's Hiding in Your Favorite Sauces—And How to Make Them Healthier