Pasta sauces

Ready-made pasta sauces are quick and easy to prepare but our expert tasters were unimpressed.
 
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  • Updated:4 Jun 2006
 

01 .Introduction

Pasta-sauces-iStock

In brief

  • While the experts thought some of the tomato-based (napoletana) sauces were OK, they were scathing about the pesto and carbonara sauces they tasted.
  • The chilled ‘fresh’ sauces didn’t stand out as consistently better than the cheaper and more convenient shelf-stable versions in jars.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2006 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Pasta’s a favourite with most people — in fact a recent survey found that spaghetti bolognese is Australia’s second most favourite food (after a traditional roast with vegetables and gravy). So for a quick dinner when you’re short of time, what could be better than pasta with one of the ready-made sauces from the supermarket?

We served 14 big-name pasta sauces to three food experts and asked for their verdict (see the Table for the brands they tasted). They weren’t enthusiastic about any of them.

If you’re feeding little kids they’d probably be happy, the experts said, but grown-ups deserve better.

 
 

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Results





Brand (in rank order within groups) Score1
(%)
Expert tasters’ comments2 Energy3
(kJ / serve)
Total fat3
(g / serve)
Sodium4
(% upper RDI)*
Weight
(g)
Price per
serve ($)**
Tomato –based (serve size 125g)
SAN REMO Fresh Traditional Napoletana (A) 64 Not unpleasant; reasonable authenticity 388 5.6 35 420 1.18
BARILLA Napoletana 61 Acidic and sharp in taste but some positive flavour 333 4.6 33 400 0.99
DOLMIO Tomato, Onion & Basil Chunky 61 I could actually taste a tomato flavour 289 0.3 27 570 0.64
PAUL NEWMANS OWN Tomato, Onion and Garlic Classic 61 Not as harsh as some of the others 210 1.6 35 750 0.70
RAGULETTO Napolitana Classic Tomato 49 A vinegary and harsh taste; lack of any tomato flavour 345 1.6 21 500 0.50
LEGGO’S Napoletana 43 A little bland and ‘gloopy’; it reminds me of tinned tomato soup 383 3.7 26 575 0.60
RAGULETTO Napolitana Classic Tomato Low Salt 43 A bit too sweet and acidic; just no flavour 331 1.9 7 500 0.50
LATINA Fresh Italian Tomato & Garlic (A) 34 Lack of any flavour depth or sweetness; acidic and watery 320 3.2 9 425 1.31
Pesto (serve size 45g)
DOLMIO Basil Pesto 52 Little flavour of parmesan or pinenuts, or even garlic 320 7.2 11 165 0.87
BARILLA Pesto alla Genovese con Basilico Fresco 46 This isn’t too bad, but the colour isn’t good 983 24.9 28 190 1.08
LEGGO’S Pesto Concentrato Creamy Basil and Pinenut 16 Start again 560 11.9 13 190 0.85
Carbonara (serve size 125g)
LATINA Fresh Creamy Carbonara (A) 22 Really poor; too creamy 782 13.5 15 425 1.31
LEGGO’S Carbonara 22 No traditional taste or flavour 563 10.6 30 565 0.62
SAN REMO Fresh Traditional Carbonara (A) 16 It just isn’t close to the real thing 1255 27.4 42 400 1.24

Table notes

* RDI: Recommended daily intake.
** Based on prices we paid in Sydney in March 2006.
(A) ‘Fresh’ sauces with more limited shelf-life, from the supermarket chiller cabinet.

1 Score
This is the average of the three experts’ overall scores.

2 Experts’ comments
These are representative comments compiled from the tasters’ individual notes.

3 Energy and total fat
The manufacturers’ recommended serve sizes vary, so for ease of comparison we used a standard serve size for each flavour type and calculated kilojoules, total fat and sodium per serve from the figures stated in the nutrition information panel on the label. You’d probably serve less of the pesto than the other sauces, which we took into account.

4 Sodium
Calculated from the amount of sodium per serve and the maximum recommended daily intake (RDI) for adults (2300 mg). Small children should have less, and many of these sauces are a bit too salty to give them often.

The sauces

There are dozens of different pasta sauces on the supermarket shelves, not to mention the ‘fresh’ versions in the chiller cabinet. We couldn’t test them all, so we focused on three popular varieties and picked the leading brands available in most supermarkets:

  • Eight tomato-based (napoletana) sauces,
  • Three brands of pesto and
  • Three of carbonara.

Two of the tomato and two of the carbonara sauces were chilled; the rest were the shelf-stable types sold in jars.

The experts

Many thanks go to our panel of food experts:

  • Sam Cosentino — hospitality industry consultant.
  • Syd Pemberton — Pemberton’s Food Workshop.
  • James Kidman — executive chef, Otto’s Ristorante Italiano, Woolloomooloo, Sydney.

The tasting

We heated the sauces following the instructions on the label and served them with penne. The three food experts independently scored each sauce for:

  • Appearance
  • Texture
  • Flavour and
  • Overall impression.

We also asked them to comment on the authenticity of the sauce — does it taste like the original Italian recipe?

The tasters didn’t know the brands they were tasting and the sauces were presented in a random order within flavour types (tomato first, followed by pesto then carbonara).

The verdict

While it’s possible the experts were more critical than some of us might be, they weren’t much impressed with any of the sauces.

  • Tomato.
    According to the experts, if you’re after the authentic taste of Italy you’ll be disappointed, but these sauces are still the best of the bunch. The tasters liked the colour of most of them, but on the whole thought the sauces lacked depth of flavour and were too sweet.

    Their verdict:
    These sauces seem to be trying to suit too broad a spectrum of tastes, and the result is a fairly characterless end product.
  • Pesto.
    Traditional pesto is made from basil, pinenuts, parmesan cheese, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. Instead, we found sauces made with peanut oil or cashew nuts. So perhaps it’s not surprising that these sauces only scored around 50% or less.

    Their verdict:
    The colour’s wrong and none of these sauces looks or tastes like fresh, home-made pesto.
  • Carbonara.
    An authentic carbonara sauce should be made from egg yolks, cream, parmesan and diced bacon or pancetta. While they all have cream and at least some bacon, LATINA Fresh Creamy Carbonara has no egg and LEGGO’S Carbonara no parmesan. And you’d be to lucky to find much bacon in a serve of LEGGO’s Carbonara — we washed a jar of it through a sieve and found only about 4 g of tiny bacon pieces in the whole 565 g jar.

    As one of the experts commented:
    “Carbonara is a very difficult sauce to pre-make — in fact it shouldn’t be.” However, the manufacturers could at least have started with the right ingredients.

To be fair, while the sauces can stand alone as an accompaniment to plain pasta (as we served them), the serving instructions for some of the tomato-based ones suggest serving with ravioli or with additions such as cooked mince or diced cooked chicken — all of which would be likely to make them tastier.

Better fresh?

  • The manufacturer of the LATINA range of ‘fresh’ pasta sauces (you’ll see many other flavours in addition to the two in this test) told us its sauces taste better than the cheaper equivalents in jars because they’re fresh, and because they’re a ‘premium’ product. But the ‘fresh’ sauces in this test didn’t stand out as obviously better.
  • SAN REMO Fresh Traditional Napoletana scored best of the tomato sauces, but SAN REMO Fresh Traditional Carbonara was rated worst of the carbonaras and LATINA Fresh Creamy Carbonara scored the same as LEGGO’S Carbonara from a jar.

And how ‘fresh’ anyway is a sauce that can be stored for about two months in the fridge before reaching its use-by date?

While obviously more trouble than opening a jar, the sauces in this test are nearly as quick and easy to make from scratch — and you’re almost guaranteed to end up with a tastier dinner. Here are some tips from our home economist (the quantities give you enough to serve four).

Tomato

  • Pasta of your choice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic (peeled and chopped finely)
  • 1 chilli, finely chopped (optional)
  • 2 x 440 g tins crushed tomatoes
  • Fresh basil or oregano (dried herbs are also OK)
  • Ground black pepper and salt to taste (if you use it)

While the pasta’s cooking, fry the garlic and chilli gently in the oil, add the tinned tomatoes, heat until boiling and add the herbs. You can serve it straightaway but if you let it cook for 10–15 minutes longer you’ll get a richer sauce (start cooking the pasta later).

See our article on Tomatoes for information on their health benefits.

Carbonara

  • 250 g fettucine
  • 4 rashers bacon or pancetta (remove rind and slice into thin strips)
  • ½ cup cream
  • Pinch paprika
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg
  • 60 g grated parmesan cheese
  • Ground black pepper

While the fettucine’s cooking, fry the bacon until crisp. Add the cream and paprika, heat gently for one minute, then remove from the heat. Add the cooked pasta, combined egg yolk and whole egg, and half the cheese. Stir the sauce through the pasta and season with pepper. Serve with the remaining parmesan cheese to sprinkle.

Pesto

  • Pasta of your choice
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup toasted pinenuts
  • Ground black pepper

Using a blender or food processor, combine fresh basil, pinenuts, garlic and lemon juice, gradually adding olive oil to get a smooth consistency.