As with other supermarket foods that contain grains—breads, cereals, snack bars—the pasta aisle has been inundated with whole-grain claims. It’s like the oat bran craze all over again or the low-fat bandwagon of recent years. But this marketing makeover looks like a winner, unless it gets mucked up to mislead supermarket shoppers. In the case of pastas, there seem to be fewer deceptive claims than there are in the bread and cereal aisles, but you still have to check the fine print on the nutrition labels before you buy. Follow these pointers when making pasta purchasing decisions.
Pasta and your health
Regular pasta, made from refined wheat, is not a great source of fiber, and it lacks many of the nutrients found in whole grains. If the flour is enriched, it will offer B vitamins and some minerals. A better choice, however, is pasta made from whole grains.
Pasta is not especially high in calories—210 per serving (2 ounces, uncooked). But the large portions that some people eat can promote weight gain, especially if the pasta is tossed with lots of butter or oil, or topped with sauces laden with cheese, cream or meat.
Understanding pasta products
To make pasta—the Italian word for paste—flour is mixed with water and the resulting dough formed into different shapes, from spaghetti and linguini to penne and fusilli. Egg noodles additionally contain egg whites or whole eggs, with at least 5.5 percent of the noodle’s weight coming from the eggs.
Traditional Italian pasta is made with semolina flour, which is milled from durum wheat (a hard wheat that is high in the protein gluten, which gives this flour more elasticity and strength). Semolina is coarsely ground but always made from refined grain. The term “enriched semolina flour” clues you in to the fact that the wheat is refined.
Once found only in health-food stores, healthful whole-wheat pastas, from spaghetti to elbow macaroni, are now available in mainstream markets. With improved technology, they are no longer chewy or gummy and instead cook up beautifully al dente, with a satisfying wheaty flavor. Pasta that is 100 percent whole-wheat has the nutritional edge—a serving (2 ounces, uncooked) has 4 to 7 grams of fiber, for instance, compared to only 2 grams in regular pasta. But if your taste buds are not yet up to it, you can try a whole-wheat pasta blend, which contains both whole wheat and refined grains. Several brands offer such blends now with varying amounts of whole wheat—some are 50/50, others more or less. Some blends have oat or wheat bran fiber added to boost the fiber content.
Keep in mind, whole-grain pasta is not limited to whole wheat. You can find pastas made from quinoa, kamut, amaranth and buckwheat (soba noodles)—a nice change of pace from regular pasta and a boon for people diagnosed with wheat allergies or gluten intolerance or sensitivity. (These products may be made in facilities that process several grains, however, so if you have a problem with gluten, look for ones that are certified gluten-free.) Some pastas combine different grains; a few contain flaxseeds, a source of plant omega-3 fats (alpha linolenic acid), though usually in small amounts.
What about “flavored” pastas, such as spinach and tomato? Unless made from whole grains, they are no different nutritionally from regular pastas. And they don’t count as a serving of vegetables, either, because they usually contain only traces of vegetables for coloring and a hint of flavor at best. A cup of cooked spinach pasta contains the equivalent of less than a tablespoon of spinach.
Pasta: good-to-know facts
For every pasta shape—from angel hair to ziti—there’s a sauce to match. But not every match is made in heaven, as you may know if you’ve ever poured a chunky sauce over thin spaghetti, say. For thin pastas, use sauces with a light consistency or a pesto or other oil-based sauce. Heartier sauces, like a chunky vegetable or bean sauce, work better on pastas that have fold, curls and hollows. Similarly, use heartier sauces with whole-grain pastas. Perfect pairs: Pour thin, creamy or clingy sauces over spaghetti, linguine and angel hair pasta. Use thick or chunky sauces on fusilli, mostaccioli, penne, radiatore, rigatoni, rotelle, rotini and shells.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for pasta
- Look for pasta with the most whole grains (you may have to try several brands to find a favorite). If all the grains listed are whole, the pasta is 100 percent whole grain. If you choose a whole-grain blend, compare nutrition labels to get the one highest in fiber.
- Fresh pasta can be delicious—and more healthful if you can find whole-grain varieties. But watch out for extra fat and calories in fresh ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Locally made pastas may not always carry nutrition information.
- Buy spinach and other “flavored” pastas if you like the way they look and taste—not because you think they are more healthful.
- If you shop at a health-food store, don’t assume that the pasta is necessarily whole grain, even if its ingredients sound more healthful. Same for organic brands. A pasta that says “100 percent durum semolina” or “golden amber durum wheat,” for example, is made from refined wheat flour.
- If you’re sensitive to gluten, don’t pass over pasta; pick one made from an alternative grain that is free of gluten, such as buckwheat or rice.
- If you don’t like one brand of whole-grain pasta, try another, since flavors and textures vary. The shape of the pasta can make a difference, too. For a lighter texture, choose thin spaghetti, say, over penne or rotini. And don’t overcook—these pastas can get mushy fast.