Homemade tomato sauce can be as chunky or as smooth as you want it to be. (Photo: Alice O'Dea)

Along with the new year, Americans got a list of our government’s new dietary guidelines (which happens every five years). It’s a long read, but fortunately, it is a document that’s geared more toward the professionals who advise us about our diets and develop food policies and programs, so we’re not expected to wade through it all. And there is a summary that gets to the gist of things pretty quickly: eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein and oils while limiting saturated and trans fats, added sugar and sodium. And move around more than you do now (the government also issues physical activity guidelines).

I don’t think there is any breaking news there. The articulated limit on sugar is new, but we’ve all known we should be easing back on that already. The guidelines also remind us that we should be careful when it comes to our consumption of sodium and certain kinds of fats. Again, this is not something that we didn’t already know. So then why are we still struggling with these perennial dietary problems?

Food and appetite are complicated issues, and we each are dealing with our own individual sensitivities and conditions, but there are a couple of factors we all contend with that are seriously sabotaging our efforts to have a healthier diet. They’re both powerful and prominent economic and commercial interests: the food and diet industries.

The world’s food industry is a broad field with a lot of players. They grow, process, market, distribute, retail and serve our food to us, and in doing so, have a profound influence over what it ultimately contains. Food science has determined that sugar, fat and salt are what humans crave, so that’s what they give us. And a lot of it is hidden—even if you never touch a salt shaker, chances are you’re still getting more sodium than most health experts think you should.

Dieting is another huge industry in the western world, and the companies that push certain diets are often the same ones that peddle junk food. They’ve got us coming and going: they sell us the food that makes us fat, then turn around and sell us the supposed weight loss solution. A lot of these diets are very restricted, and tend to focus on what we can’t have, rather than all the wonderful things we do get to enjoy. This sort of scarcity thinking makes us feel deprived, and if we do have a moment of weakness, we tend to reach for the things that we're manipulated into craving.

Part of the solution to these problems is simply to be aware that it’s happening. Keep an eye on labels, try to see through the marketing, and make decisions based on not just what will make you feel good right now, but also what will make your future self feel good. Be aware of the places where salt, fat and sugar tend to hide in food. You can still eat out and enjoy a well-chosen processed treat, but also keep in mind that the more you cook, the more you get to be in charge of what is in your food.

With that in mind, and since it appears in at least two of those lists of foods with hidden dangers, I’m going to leave you with a nice, basic recipe for tomato sauce, so you can make a version without the lurking sugar and salt. It also happens to be much cheaper, surprisingly easy and fresher tasting than a sauce from a jar (even if you use canned tomatoes).

The simplest recipe I could find for tomato sauce comes from Alice Waters in “The Art of Simple Food.” It calls for just four ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and salt. Ideally, this sauce is made with fresh tomatoes, but since it is currently the dead of winter, canned tomatoes will likely be better than anything in the produce section of the grocery store (just be careful to get canned tomatoes that do not have much added salt).

For about two cups of sauce, put a quarter cup of olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add some chopped garlic (up to five cloves, depending on how much you like it), and heat briefly. Pour a 28-ounce can of tomatoes over the garlic and stir. Let it simmer for about fifteen minutes, add salt to taste, and you’re done! It’s practically instant sauce, with an incredible number of possible variations (which I will get into next week). Enjoy!

Alice O'Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn't really learn to cook until midlife. When she's not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at aliceodea@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, notNooga.com or its employees.