Healthy Tomato Sauce?
The rich flavour of tomatoes, high liquid content and soft flesh make them great for turning into a sauce. You would be hard pressed to not find many households with some version of tomato sauce and kids really love it - in fact in terms of per capital consumption it is the leading processed vegetable! For the record too botanically speaking the tomato is termed a fruit due to it plant parts (but it is customarily used as a vegetable).
With the increased awareness of the amount of sugar in processed foods however tomato sauce has come into the spotlight. Many of the traditional varieties contain significant amounts of sugar - in some cases it is the first ingredient listed not tomatoes (ekkkk). I have found some supermarket brands contain up to 40% sugar which is unbelievably high and certainly does not help the development of positive food habits especially for our little ones.
To give you a little bit more background on how tomato sauce is made - the majority of packaged tomato sauce (including the four below) is made from tomato paste or concentrated tomatoes. This is a process by which the the liquid and fleshy portions of the tomato are firstly separated from the seeds, skin and core. Secondly the remaining water from this gets removed until the final concentrated product has approximately 8% tomato solids. Following this, there is a number of heating and cooling procedures (depending on the manufacturer) the outcomes of which deactivates the pectin in the tomato to help keep it more shelf-stable (along with the addition of salt, sugar and other extracts). Sugar is added most commonly as flavour and as a cheaper ingredient than the concentrated tomatoes - hence the generally higher price for those with more tomato!.
The market has started to evolve with this increased awareness and we seeing some more healthy options to tomato sauce come on the market especially with reduced sugar or alternatives to the use of refined sugar ....but the question begs still as to how healthy these really are?
I did a review of four of the more popular healthy tomato sauces on the market here in New Zealand to see just what was what. The below diagram compares key ingredients per 100g for each.
The first two Smugglers Sauce (Get Real Foods) and Simon Gault's '100% Sweetened with Vegetables' contain no refined sugar at all. The bottom two from Heinz and Watties are their 'reduced sugar' options with half the added sugar to their original counterparts (for which have upwards of 30% sugar!).
The Smugglers tomato sauce (Get Real Foods) is made from New Zealand tomatoes in the Hawkes Bay and it also contains 24% pumpkin. I think this is nothing short of genius to try and get in another vegetable into a sauce! With one of the lowest amounts of sugar, this sauce contains no added refined sugar - they use dates and apple juice concentrate for a dash of sweetness instead.
Both Watties and Heinz still used added sugar in their 'reduced sugar' options. The Heniz label was a little bit more sneaky as in the bullet points it reads 'naturally sweented with extracts of the stevia leaf' yet in the ingredients list states 'sugar' as an added ingredient as well as the sweetner. Both of these had very high amounts of sodium.
The more difficult sauce to place out of these is Simon Gault's '100% Sweetened by Vegetable' sauce. While it does not contain any added sugar (none listed on the back), the overall sugar content is significantly higher than the other options. Regardless of if the tomato is viewed as a fruit or a vegetable it does still contain fructose (the natural sugar) with approximately 2.7g of fructose/100g. Given that most of the fibrous parts of the tomato are removed in processing the body would still produce a similar insulin response (blood sugar hormonal response) to this sugar in the sauce - at the end of the day sugar is sugar. I would still prefer this sauce over those with added sugar however my top pick is the Smugglers Sauce due to the significantly less sugar and sodium content.
Personally I have never given our boys 'traditional' tomato sauce due to the huge amounts of sugar - so for now they only believe that the healthy tomato sauce exists (that may change of course!). I am sure they have had some of the 'other' sauce at birthday parities but for something to have at home I am really pleased to have a different choices and I would highly recommend checking out the Smugglers sauce at their local stockist - supporting a business where their core values are in providing quality, healthy but convenient products for busy families is very important to me too.
I hope this has helped to pull out some of the key ingredients to look at with the expansion of new sauces on the market. No doubt there will be more to come - which I only see as a step in the right direction for the food industry.
xxx Dr Julie Bhosale.