Is Pasta Healthy?

October 10, 2016

October is National Pasta Month, and SupermarketGuru wants to address the healthfulness of pasta.

Pasta often gets a bad rap, and sometimes for good reason – today’s serving of pasta is about six to eight times larger than what the USDA and health professionals have determined to be an actual serving size, and some sauces are way too rich and creamy to be considered a health food. But what about the pasta itself? Yes the pasta on it’s own, tossed with some extra virgin olive oil, garlic and a ton of veggies, lean meat or seafood can actually be a very healthy part of a varied and balanced diet. 

Pasta is a traditional food that predates the emergence of obesity and diabetes. The truth is, pasta is and has long been a healthy carbohydrate and a central component of the Mediterranean diet - considered one of the best lifestyles for maintaining a healthy weight. 

One cup of cooked pasta contains about 40 grams of carbohydrates. And in the context of a balanced diet, 40 grams of carbs is not too much – depending on your health status. A serving of cooked pasta is actually 1 cup to ½ cup (about the size of your fist), and even less, 1/3 cup for diabetics, according to the American Dietetic Association. Each one-pound box contains about eight servings. So not as much pasta as expected – but this leaves plenty of room to add fiber filled veggies, which will boost the nutrient status of your meal and help you fell fuller longer. Make a larger salad or add some sautéed spinach, zucchini, or broccolini, or whatever you have on hand to your pasta.

Most pasta is made from durum, an entirely different species from wheat that is used in bread, it’s an older species and a hybrid of wild grasses; modern bread wheat is more domesticated. Pasta also has a relatively low glycemic index (GI) a system that measures how fast foods are converted to glucose and absorbed in the bloodstream. High glycemic foods cause a fast spike in blood sugar and tax our organs, specifically the pancreas – overtime leading to diabetes. Pasta’s GI is around 25 to 45, depending on the type and how long its cooked. Compare this with white bread, with a GI of about 75. 

Today there are whole grain pastas available. Whole grains contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. They provide fiber, vitamin E, and minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium. The outer skin of the seed contains B vitamins, antioxidants and fiber-rich bran; the germ holds the protein, minerals and healthy fats; and the endosperm (the main part of the grain between the bran and the germ) contains protein, carbohydrates and smaller quantities of vitamins and minerals. The bran and germ contain 25 percent of the protein in whole grains and the majority of the nutrients. When highly processed, these valuable nutrients and proteins are lost - not to mention healthful fiber. Whole grain pasta has a similar GI, with added (naturally occurring) nutrition as well. 

Remember pasta, should be cooked al dente, or slightly firm, anything cooked longer slightly raises the GI. Pasta’s healthfulness is questionable when it is overly processed, such as the mushy stuff in a can, or when it is topped excessively with fatty meats and cheeses.

Remember portion size, cooking time, and the added veggies are key!