By Leia Kedem
Did you know that eating pasta can help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, cognitive problems and even skin damage? If it's topped with plenty of classic marinara sauce, it can.
Tomatoes, the primary ingredient in marinara, can prevent blood clotting and have anti-inflammatory properties to prevent a whole host of chronic conditions.
They also contain high levels of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that can help neutralize cell-damaging particles called free radicals.
Interestingly, unlike most other nutrients in fruits and vegetables, lycopene is more powerful when cooked. In this case, fresh is not necessarily better.
Of course, it's still a great idea to enjoy fresh tomatoes in a variety of dishes, from salsa to salads. They provide a plethora of vitamins and minerals, while their water and fiber content help fill you up on few calories. Prime tomato season is past us, so focus on processed tomatoes during the colder months. These are just as nutritious as fresh — and more so when it comes to the lycopene.
Prepared tomato sauce is a great place to start, but hundreds of options line the shelves. What should you choose? Marinara sauce can be high in salt, so look for lower-sodium versions. Those labeled as heart-healthy may be good options; look for the American Heart Association stamp of approval.
Surprisingly, marinara may also contain more sugar than you expect. If purchasing jarred or canned sauce, choose the one with the lowest levels of sugar and sodium.
While prepared sauce can be convenient and certainly healthier than creamier sauces like Alfredo, you can make it even healthier at home. Not only will you have more control over the salt and sugar, it can be much cheaper.
The recipe listed below (adapted from the University of Minnesota Extension) is a great basic marinara sauce. I often double or triple the recipe, divide into plastic containers and freeze for busy weeknights. Sometimes there's nothing better than a bowl of pasta with marinara and some Parmesan cheese, but this recipe can also be used in other Italian dishes like lasagna, baked ziti or pizza.
Don't be afraid to get creative: I like to use this sauce by cooking brown rice in the tomato sauce rather than water, then adding cooked green bell pepper, chopped chicken breast and Cajun seasoning for a healthy jambalaya. The possibilities are truly endless, so get cooking.
Basic Marinara Sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 28-ounce or 2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes, no salt added
1 6-ounce can tomato paste, no salt added
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried leaf oregano
1 teaspoon dried leaf basil
Water as needed to thin sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Saute onion and garlic in oil until translucent. Add diced tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, oregano and basil to onion mixture. Let simmer at least 20 minutes to blend flavors. If sauce is too thick, thin with water to desired consistency.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf before serving.
Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.