Choosing Healthy Pasta: Is Pasta Healthy? What is the Healthiest Pasta?
We all know pasta is delicious, but is it also possible to find healthy pasta? First and foremost, carbs are NOT "bad"—they're actually the most useable source of fuel for our bodies! Some carbohydrate-rich foods, like those made with refined grains, don't offer us much quality fuel or nutrients. But, whole, unrefined grains are an incredible source of fuel, offering us healthy fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and a reduced risk of many chronic diseases!
There are plenty of 100% whole wheat or whole grain pastas out there, which can absolutely be a part of your healthy lifestyle. Yet, the pasta aisle has SO many boxes to choose from—whole wheat, high fiber, multigrain, spinach—and lots of them make deceiving health claims.
And, like with many breads and cereals, even if the package says "whole wheat" or "whole grain," a pasta may still be made from mostly refined grains and only partially from whole grains...Whaaat?! So frustrating! So is pasta healthy? It can be!
Here's what you need to know when it comes to choosing healthy pasta in the grocery store:
What are Whole Grains? Why Are They A Healthy Choice?
There are many types of grains—wheat, oats, rice, quinoa, corn (just to name a few). When these grains grow, they start out as whole grains, known as kernels. By definition, the kernel that is a "whole grain" has 3 parts:
- the bran—the kernel's outer skin; full of antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber.
- the germ—the grain's embryo, which can sprout into a new plant; packed with B vitamins, minerals, some protein, and healthy fats.
- the endosperm—the germ's food/energy supply that gives the plant life; offers starchy carbohydrates and proteins, along with minimal vitamins and minerals.
The nutrients and fiber offered by these three layers of a whole grain are what make whole-grain pastas a healthy choice. Whole grains offer valuable antioxidants, some of which aren't found in fruits and vegetables. Fiber makes whole-grain products more filling, and aid in our digestion. Scientific research also has shown that a healthy diet which includes whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and some cancers.
What are Refined Grains?
Traditionally, Italian pasta is made from "semolina" (also referred to as "semolina flour," "durum semolina" or "golden amber durum wheat"), which is just another name for refined wheat grains. You'll see most pastas in the grocery store list semolina as an ingredient, so it's important to know that it is a refined grain!
Refined means the whole wheat grains have gone through a milling process, which removes the grain's outer bran shell and its inner germ layer, leaving just the starchy endosperm. Milling grains can create softer breads and pastas, and many people are now accustomed to these products. While white flour and white pastas do contain wheat, they're made from refined wheat rather than whole grain wheat.
The problem is, removing the bran and the germ means all of the healthy fiber, vitamins, and minerals are stripped from those grains. Around a quarter of a grain's protein content and two-thirds or more of its other nutrients are lost in the refining process! Most refined grains are now enriched with some B vitamins and minerals, but they add back just a small portion of what whole grains naturally contain.
Ultimately, refined grains don't offer our bodies quality fuel.
What is the Healthiest Pasta?
Pasta is not "unhealthy," and even refined pastas and grains can be okay in moderation. Most kinds of pasta (refined or whole grain) are about the same in terms of macronutrients—naturally low in fat and high in carbs. What about spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, or rotini? Are penne or farfalle healthier than tagliatelle or pappardelle? The truth is, the shape of your pasta has no effect on its nutrition, so choose whichever you like to eat!
The main issue is the large portion sizes that we tend to eat when it comes to pasta. Keep in mind, just ½ cup of cooked pasta is around 100 calories, and a big pasta dinner can add up quickly. With pasta in general, even 100% whole-grain, we need to be mindful of our portion sizes!
Because pasta is such a commonly used ingredient, it's best to choose the most wholesome option. The most fuel-filled and nutritious pasta is a 100% whole grain pasta, and whole grain goes beyond just whole wheat pastas. There are a variety of whole grain pasta options:
- quinoa pasta
- corn pasta
- brown rice pasta
- buckwheat (soba noodles)
- amaranth pasta
- spelt pasta
- kamut pasta
Gluten comes from wheat, so options like quinoa, corn, brown rice, buckwheat, and amaranth pastas are suitable for a gluten free lifestyle. But, some grains are relatives of wheat and DO contain gluten, like spelt and kamut.
**If you have a gluten sensitivity, always check a product's label to see if it's certified gluten free.**
What About Lentil or Bean Pastas? Or Vegetable Pastas?
Lately, pastas made from beans (like black beans or garbanzo beans) and lentils have become more popular. Rather than flour made from grains, these pastas are made from bean or lentil flour. In your grocery store, you may see black bean pasta with black noodles, or red lentil pasta with red noodles!
Bean pastas are still similar in calories to grain-based pastas, but bean pastas tend to have more protein and fiber. Like 100% whole-grain pastas, bean pastas are not refined, so their texture tends to be a bit chewier than typical pasta. Though the texture may be a bit different, bean and whole-grain pastas can be just as delicious as refined pastas—and far more fuel-filled! Bean pastas are another gluten-free, unrefined, and healthy pasta choice.
You may also see "vegetable" pastas with green and red noodles in your grocery store, and they may look enticing—but don't be deceived! "Spinach" and "tomato" pastas really just use very small amounts of veggies for flavor and color. These pastas do NOT count as a serving of vegetables by any means! There's typically less than 1 tablespoon of spinach in 1 cup of spinach pasta... Unless they're made with whole grains, "veggie" pastas are no nutritionally different or healthier than regular, refined pastas.
Choose Whole Grain and Unrefined Pastas
Whole wheat and whole grain pastas are now mainstream and you can find them in most grocery stores. Many people have resisted whole grain pastas (which were once known to be chewy and gummy and not so delicious), but, nowadays, improved production technology has helped create whole-grain pastas that are smoother and less grainy. Give them a try!
The most important thing when choosing a healthy pasta is to read the labels carefully. If you see "enriched wheat flour" or "enriched semolina flour" (or "semolina" in general) listed in the ingredients, you are looking at a pasta made from refined grains. Watch out for pastas labeled as "high fiber," which are generally made from refined durum wheat (not a whole grain) with some extra fiber added back in.
Some "whole wheat" pastas are actually a blend of whole and refined grains, rather than 100% whole wheat. These can be an okay choice, especially if it helps you transition from refined pastas to whole grain, but the healthiest choice is a 100% whole grain pasta.
When choosing healthy pasta, you want a whole grain to be the FIRST ingredient. All grains/flours listed in the ingredients should have the word "whole" before them, and look for the orange labels from the Whole Grains Council, shown above!