Pasta is one of those pantry staples that most households always have on hand, but is pasta healthy? Whether you buy white or whole wheat, spaghetti, penne, or fettuccini, here is everything that you need to know about pasta and whether or not it’s actually good for you.
Is Pasta Healthy?
Nutritionally speaking, pasta is a source of carbohydrates and, depending on the type and how it is served, can either be a nutrient-rich dish or an incredibly rich source of calories. Therefore, in order to answer the question; “Is pasta healthy or unhealthy?” we need to consider the type of pasta, how it was made, the ingredients it contains, as well as how much and how often it is being consumed.
What is Pasta and How is it Made?
In Italian, the word pasta means “paste” and refers to a mixture of durum wheat flour, water, and/or eggs used to create an unleavened dough that is formed into sheets or shapes and cooked in boiling water. Today, the term “pasta” is used to describe a wide variety of noodles shapes from different doughs, although traditional pasta is made using semolina flour, the flour made from the endosperm of durum wheat.
Dry Pasta vs. Fresh Pasta: Which is Better?
Once made into shapes, pasta can be divided into two broad categories; dried pasta (pasta secca) and fresh pasta (pasta fresca). Fresh pasta is typically mixed, cooked, and eaten immediately, while dried pasta is prepared and stored for a later time.
Fresh pasta is made from a simple dough of eggs and flour, usually all-purpose flour or “00” high-gluten flour. This dough is then kneaded, much like bread dough, and pressed through rollers until it’s as thin as desired before being cut into noodles. Because it contains eggs and additional water, fresh pasta is more tender than dried pasta and takes about half the time to cook. Conversely, dried pasta is made from finely ground semolina flour, water, and (sometimes) salt. Once mixed into a paste, the dough is pushed through moulds and cut into the wide variety of pasta shapes we know and love. Unlike fresh pasta, this pasta is dried at a low temperature for several days until all the moisture has evaporated allowing it to be stored in the pantry almost indefinitely. Nutritionally speaking there is very little difference between fresh and dried pasta given the ingredients used to make them are so similar.
White Pasta vs. Whole Grain Pasta: Which is Better?
The difference between whole-grain pasta and white pasta (or refined pasta) is simply that the flour used to make whole-grain pasta contained the entire grain (bran, germ, and endosperm), while the flour used to make white pasta only contained the endosperm.
A grain of wheat contains three edible parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. When ground into flour, grains are broken down into tiny pieces and the bran, germ, and endosperm are separated in the process. From here, these different parts can be separated, or combined, to make different types of flour, including whole wheat flour and white flour. Nutritionally speaking, whole grain pasta will contain slightly more nutrients and fiber, given it still contains the bran and the endosperm, however, it can also contain more anti-nutrients (found in the bran and germ) making it more difficult for some people to digest. Although often touted as nutritionally superior, whole grain pasta is not necessarily a healthier option than white pasta and, regardless of which you chose to eat, you should always read the label and opt for versions with minimal ingredients and limited additives and preservatives.
What about Pasta Alternatives?
In addition to traditional wheat-based pasta, you can now easily find noodles made out of buckwheat, rice, chickpeas, and lentils leaving lots of options to suit people’s needs, however, it is important to understand that these options are not necessarily better than traditional wheat-based pasta, they are simply different. For those who can not consume wheat or gluten for allergy, intolerance, or dietary reasons pasta alternatives are a great way to enjoy a noodle dish, however, if you looking at pasta alternatives thinking they are superior options you are misguided. Trying to compare wheat pasta to chickpea pasta or lentil pasta is like trying to compare apples to broccoli – they are completely different foods with completely different nutritional benefits.
Is Pasta High in Carbs?
Pasta, much like any grain or grain-based product is a source of carbohydrates; a 1-cup serving of whole-grain pasta contains 63 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of fiber, while a 1-cup serving of white pasta contains 60 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of fiber. To give context, a 1-cup serving of oatmeal contains 54 grams of carbohydrates, a 1-cup serving of white rice contains 44 grams of carbohydrates and a large apple contains 38 grams of carbohydrates. Therefore, a serving of pasta may be slightly higher in carbohydrates than some carbohydrate-based foods, however, it is not dramatically higher as it is often made out to be.
But, Is Pasta Bad for Weight Loss?
The long and short answer to this question is no. No one individual food will be the reason for weight loss or the reason for weight gain. A person’s weight is influenced by a variety of different factors including food quality, total caloric intake, and activity level just to name a few. Therefore, assuming that you are consuming a diet of whole foods and eating in a caloric deficit, including pasta will not impede weight loss or force weight gain. Like any food, how much you eat is important so paying attention to the portion size of pasta is vital if weight loss happens to be your goal.
So, What’s the Healthiest Pasta to Buy?
When it comes to buying pasta, here are some simple tips to ensure that you’re getting the highest quality and healthiest pasta available:
Ingredients: Pasta doesn’t have many ingredients to begin with but the shorter the list the higher the quality. Essentially, the ingredients should include flour and water, specifically durum wheat semolina, durum wheat, or semolina flour.
Colour: For dried pasta, look for noodles that are opaque and pale yellow, almost white in color.
Texture: Cheaper pasta has a very smooth, almost plastic appearance, and tends to cook up stickier and gummier. If you’re willing to spend a little more, look for bronze die-cut pasta, which has a textured surface and is typically traditionally soaked making it easier to digest.
Fiber: Looks for pasta that has at least 2 grams of fiber per serving or opt for whole-grain versions if needed.
Sodium: Look for pasta with 0 grams of sodium per serving (or very little added sodium) given salt can be added during the cooking process.
The Bottom Line
Pasta is a healthy food that can be included in a healthy diet. Since pasta is a rich source of carbohydrates it is important to be mindful of portion sizes and opt for high-quality versions made with minimal ingredients. Nutrition is all about context and, therefore, when consumed in a well-balanced diet of whole foods pasta is likely nothing to be concerned about.