Pasta has gotten a bad rap lately. From gluten-free to low carb diets, we’ve frequently turned a cold shoulder toward this crowd-pleasing carb. But is pasta actually unhealthy?
The best answer is, “It depends.”
The short explanation is that dry pasta which has been extruded like Playdoh into a fun shape (think rigatoni or penne), and which has been cooked for a short period of time and is still firm (what the Italians call al dente) and then served with a high fiber vegetable, is a healthy component of a balanced diet.
This is good news as dry pasta in a box is the easiest type to keep on hand for fast dinners. Fresh pasta, on the other hand, is best enjoyed occasionally. Which is great because who wants to make fresh pasta every day? It’s delicious, but not convenient.
The reason why dry pasta is healthier than fresh pasta is where this begins to get a little complicated and there are several concepts that you need to understand in order to make sense of it, including refined flour, carbohydrates, the glycemic index, and how dry pasta is made.
If the short explanation above is enough for you, skip to the bottom of this post for 6 easy ways to cook healthier pasta. Otherwise, here is the long food science answer. I should also make it clear that I am not a nutritionist. I just care about what I eat and try to learn as much about it as I can.
Unlike most foods made from refined flour, dry pasta reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Traditional pasta is made from refined flour. Refined flour
But not all food products made from refined flour are the same. While it is true that whole grain pasta contains more nutrients than pasta made from refined flour, whole grain and dry pasta both help reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
There are three reasons that dry pasta achieves its remarkable status as a healthy refined flour product: 1. It is made with durum wheat semolina. 2. It is extruded during the manufacturing process, and 3. It is cooked al dente.
But what exactly is refined flour and why is dry pasta different?
A grain of wheat is composed of three things: the bran or husk, the germ or embryo, and the endosperm which contains the food for the embryo.
The endosperm is the only part of a wheat grain that is needed for flour as it contains the majority of the proteins and carbs which contribute to the structure and texture of the final food product. Unfortunately, it’s the bran and the germ that contain most of the nutritional value.
So yes, pasta made with refined flour does have a lower nutritional value than pasta made with whole grains. But if the lack of nutritional value was the entire problem, a highly nutritious topping on your pasta should fix things.
The bigger problem is
Unlike most foods made from refined flour, dry pasta has a low rating on the glycemic index because it delivers energy to your body more efficiently.
Carbohydrates are made from sugars, starches, and fibers. While the fiber passes through your body undigested, your body breaks down the sugars and starches into a type of sugar called glucose. Glucose is your body’s primary fuel. It’s the gas that keeps your body humming and your brain spinning.
Foods that provide a steady stream of fuel over a long period of time are considered better than foods that spike your fuel level only to drop again rapidly. By efficiently releasing energy over a long period of time, these foods can contribute to weight loss and prevent chronic diseases linked to obesity such as diabetes and heart disease.
This can be measured with the glycemic index which was created to help diabetics manage blood sugar by
The glycemic index rates foods on a scale of 0 to 100. Foods that score 55 or less are considered to have a low glycemic index which means the sugar reaches your bloodstream slower, providing energy more efficiently over a longer period of time. This includes vegetables and beans. Foods rated from 70 to 100, such as white rice, white bread, and potatoes, are said to have a high glycemic index and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.
Fresh pasta, like ravioli, scores high at about 70, while dry pasta has a low score, similar to whole grain pasta, at around 40. Which means that while whole grain pasta does have more nutrients, its link to obesity, heart disease
Dry pasta has a low glycemic rating because it is made with flour from hard wheat which takes longer to digest than soft wheat.
Dry pasta is made with a flour called semolina which is made from durum wheat. Durum is Latin for hard and durum wheat is the hardest wheat. Hard wheat is high in protein and gluten. Gluten is a mixture of two proteins and it acts as a glue that holds food together. Gluten is glue and gluten is where we get the world glue from.
As hard wheat is high in protein and gluten it produces a tougher pasta that holds its shape better and for longer than pasta made with soft wheat. It can also absorb more water before it falls apart. This hardness is one of the reasons that dry pasta is good for you. Your body digests it slower.
Fresh pasta, on the other hand, is made with flour made from soft wheat or a blend of soft and hard wheat. The lower protein content produces a more tender pasta, but one that also loses its shape more rapidly and which your body digests quicker. This is one reason that fresh pasta is best not eaten on a daily basis. Fresh pasta can be made with semolina, but it is a lot more difficult to work and it creates a less tender pasta.
Dry pasta is also low on the glycemic index because it is extruded.
Dry pasta gets its shape by being pressed through a pasta extruder which is very similar to the toy I shaped Playdoh with as a child. This is how rotini gets squiggled and spaghetti becomes a tube.
This process also produces a protective coating which further slows down the rate at which starch is gelatinized and digested and therefore the speed at which sugars enter your bloodstream.
Extruded pasta has a lower glycemic rating than handmade pasta. Rigatoni, penne, and spaghetti are all extruded and have a low rating on the glycemic index. Lasagna sheets are not extruded and therefore rate higher.
Dry pasta must be cooked al dente in order to score low on the glycemic index.
Pasta is considered a low glycemic food only when cooked al dente. Al dente literally means to the tooth in Italian and means that the pasta is still firm to the bite. Overcooked or mushy pasta scores higher on the glycemic index as your body breaks the glucose down faster. Convenient for us, pasta cooked al dente also just tastes better.
It’s also often not the pasta that is unhealthy, but the way we choose to prepare it. We can’t blame pasta for the fact that we haven’t mastered portion size or learned to cook lighter, plant-based dishes.
While there are plenty of highly caloric Italian pasta preparations, layered in meaty and cheesy goodness, the day to day Italian-style of eating pasta tends to be far more health conscious. Many preparations use pasta advantageously as a convenient and affordable vehicle for vegetables, beans and legumes, key ingredients of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.
Here are six easy ways to cook healthier pasta in an Italian way.
- Use a dry pasta made from 100% durum wheat semolina that comes in a fun shape produced through an extrusion process. Penne, rigatoni
and spaghettiare all winners.
- Top your pasta with local, seasonal veggies instead of heavy meat or cream sauces and choose heart-healthy olive oil over butter.
- Add beans and legumes. Beans and legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas, make their way into many traditional Italian pasta dishes. Low in calories and high in protein and fiber, beans are good for you and can help reduce blood sugar and cholesterol and promote gut health. They’re also cheap and contribute to sustainable agriculture practices with a low environmental impact which makes them a win for your waistline and the world.
- Don’t use jarred pasta sauces as they often contain unnecessary sugars, preservatives, and calories. And skip the boxed mac and cheese. The powdered cheese has been found to contain harmful chemicals and there is plenty of the real stuff to go around.
- Do not overcook your pasta. Cook your pasta only until it is al dente which means to the tooth in Italian and refers to pasta that is still firm when chewed. Firm pasta not only tastes better, but it is better for you as it has a lower glycemic index which means your body digests it slower and releases energy more efficiently.
- Keep portions relatively small. Eating pasta does not need to be an all you can eat buffet. A sensibly-sized portion between 80 and 125 grams, or around a cup of uncooked pasta, is plenty for one person.