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Confusion on the Pasta Aisle

August 11, 2020

As a coveted comfort food, pasta’s popularity makes it a common item in many pantries. With the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending a limit to refined grains, and the dawn of gluten-free, low-carb and designer foods, pasta has become the perfect target for food manufacturers. A robust range of pasta choices, such as veggie, protein and bean now fill grocery shelves, begging the question: Which do I choose?

Label reading is a must in determining the healthiest choices. Be sure to read carefully, make comparisons and evaluate potential health benefits (if any) from eating the specialty pasta. High-protein pasta may not be low in carbs, while spaghetti with added veggie servings may not meet expectations, and many products may not be considered whole grain.

Protein-Based Pasta

Regular white pasta provides 7 grams of protein, 200 calories, 42 grams carbohydrate and 3 grams fiber in a 1 cup serving. Looking at the first ingredient on the list, white pasta is made mainly from white, refined semolina (milled durum wheat flour).

Protein pasta, like white pasta, is made mainly from semolina. There are nominal nutrient differences with the exception of added pea and lentil protein, increasing protein content by 3 grams. Protein pasta, in essence, appears to be white refined pasta with added pea protein. If truly looking for high-protein pasta, consider a bean, pea or lentil variety.

Bean, Pea, Lentil Pasta

Bean pastas contain comparable calories to white pasta, but have double or triple the amount of protein and fiber. Most bean pastas are 10-20 grams lower in carbohydrate compared to their refined white counterpart. It is important to test different brands for consistency and taste, and look for beans to be the first and possibly only ingredient. Carefully follow cooking instructions to avoid mushy results. 

Veggie/Wheat Pasta

Labels on veggie pastas proclaim a certain amount of “vegetable servings.” Check the fine print! It takes 2 cups of pasta (a whopping 400 calories) for 1 veggie serving. With white flour as the first ingredient, the pasta is mainly refined grain. Some brands contain vegetable powders while others include dried vegetables. The unknown benefit of the powdered vegetables is not enough to rank this as a beneficial purchase. Consider the more nutritious option of cooking regular white pasta with added carrots, tomato, spinach, garlic and olive oil. 

Vegetable-Based Pasta

Hearts of palm linguini, made from hearts of palm, resembles the look and mouthfeel of thick noodles. Very low in calories, hearts of palm linguini is a water-based, low-carb pasta substitute that tastes like the vegetable itself. If looking for a very low-carb alternative for noodles, palm linguini may be an option if seasoned or topped with a red sauce.

Another low-carb pasta substitute, shirataki, is made from the root of a konjac plant. Found in the produce section, shirataki noodles are high in soluble fiber, which adds a firm texture. 

Made from fresh spiralized zucchini, zoodles mimic the look and shape of noodles. Zoodles are in the produce section of the grocery store. For a less-expensive alternative, purchase a hand-held spiralizer to make veggie noodles from any vegetable at home. 

Grain-Based Pastas

When selecting grain-based pasta, be sure to choose one with 100 percent whole-grain flours listed as the first ingredient. Whole grains help to lower the risk of disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. Products may include whole wheat, brown rice, buckwheat (soba), kamut or spelt. Be wary that some, like quinoa pasta, may be a blend of added refined flours.

With a wide selection of pasta at the grocery store, consumers utilizing label-sleuthing skills have the opportunity to make informed decisions based on nutritional quality, dietary preferences and taste. From nutrient-dense bean pastas to vegetable and whole-grain noodles, many healthy choices are widely available. 

Rating the Pasta Options

Using refined, white pasta as our barometer (3rd choice), several pasta options are categorized as green (1st choice) or yellow (2nd choice).

Product (2 oz serving size)

Calories

Protein (g)

Carb (g)

Fat (g)

Fiber (g)

1st Ingredient

White Thin Spaghetti

200

7

42

1

3

Semolina

Protein

Protein Spaghetti

190

10

39

1

4

Semolina

Bean, Pea, Lentil

Chickpea Rotini

190

11

34

3.5

8

Chickpea flour

Red Lentil Rotini

180

13

34

1.5

6

Red lentil flour

Edamame Spaghetti

180

24

20

3.5

13

Edamame (soy) bean flour

Black Bean Spaghetti

210

22

21

4

11

Black beans

Veggie Pasta

Veggie Penne

½ serving of vegetables in 2 oz

200

8

40

1

2

Semolina

Hearts of Palm Linguine

10

0

2

0

1

Water, sea salt, hearts of palm

Shirataki

5

0

1.5

0

0

Konjac flour

Zoodles

10

1

1.8

0

0.5

Zucchini

Grain-Based Pasta

Fiber-Enriched Spaghetti

190

7

42

1

5

Semolina, inulin

Quinoa Spaghetti

200

4

42

2

3

Corn flour, brown rice flour, quinoa flour

Brown Rice Spirals

220

4

44

2

2

Brown rice

Whole Wheat Thin Spaghetti

180

8

39

1.5

7

Whole grain durham

Kamut Spirals

214

10

41

1.5

6

Whole grain kamut wheat

Soba Noodles

200

6

43

1

3

Whole buckwheat flour




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