There was nothing I loved better as a kid than a big plate of pasta.
Unless there was italian bread.
In which case I loved the bread more (but I still scarfed all the pasta).
We’ve all been schooled, however, in the idea that plain white pasta isn’t good for us — our serving sizes are too big, the pasta is low in fiber and low in overall nutrition, and the white flour used in that pasta just might be problematic for anyone with blood sugar problems.
And if the CDC’s 2011 estimates are right, over 100 million of us *should* be concerned with possible blood sugar problems; according to this fact sheet, 25.8 million Americans were diabetic, with another 79 million Americans qualified as “prediabetic.”
I remember learning to avoid white pasta way back in the 1990s — before I knew much of anything else about nutrition. I started buying whole wheat pasta back then, but really, I only did so because I thought I was supposed to.
I didn’t actually know if whole wheat pasta was really better for me than the white stuff.
And it sounds like many of you don’t know the answer either.
So let’s start with reading the label of a package of regular white pasta.
Here’s what a traditional white pasta label says:
This is the label for Barilla Rigatoni. (BTW, I had a hard time finding said nutrition label on Barilla’s product website. This is all I could find by way of nutrition information on their site.)
And here are the ingredients, taken from the Wegmans website since the Barilla site was again void of information:
Semolina (Wheat), Durum Flour, Niacin, Iron (Ferrous Sulfate), Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid.
The important parts of this label are simple:
- serving size: 2 uncooked ounces (56g) — that’s 1/8 of this box
- fat content: low, just 1g per 56g serving
- protein content: 6g, mostly from gluten (see below)
- carb content: 40g, with only 2g fiber
So what does this label mean, then?
First, don’t be fooled by the low calorie total (200 kcal) or the low fat content (1g). This is made from a grain, and ALL grains are naturally low in fat and relatively low in calories per serving.
However, be very aware of the serving size — just 1/8 of the one-pound box. Who eats only 1/8 of the box when making pasta? When David and I used to eat this stuff, we’d cook half the box and split it. Meaning we each ate TWO official “servings” of it at one meal.
Second, don’t be lured by the protein content either. 6g of protein isn’t much if you’re trying to get 100g+ per day. And since this protein is from a grain, it is incomplete; it doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids your body needs from a protein source.
The lacking amino acids, however, isn’t a huge problem given that your other protein sources in a meal will likely make up for the lacking ones. The bigger issue in this pasta is that the protein is mostly gluten.
Durum wheat (and it’s product, semolina) is known to be higher in gluten than some other varieties of wheat. So for anyone with even a possible gluten sensitivity or tolerance issue, even if that person does not have Celiac’s, this pasta will be higher in gluten and will lead to symptoms.
Third, and probably most damning for the general population, the carb content in this pasta is relatively high for a 2 ounce serving, and that carb total contains a relatively low level of fiber as well. Compare this, for example, to one serving of oats, which has 26g of carbs and 4g of fiber. The fiber accounts for just 5% of the pasta’s carb total, while the fiber in the oats accounts for more than 15% of its carb total. Fiber in a meal can help keep blood sugar steady, and the measly 2g of fiber per serving in this pasta will do little to keep blood sugar spikes at bay.
So white pasta = misleading serving sizes and possible carb/blood sugar bomb.
Plus if you’re sensitive, you’ll be infesting your intestines with a highly glutenous grain.
Now, does that mean whole wheat pasta is better?
Let’s look at this whole grain option first:
The ingredients in Barilla Whole Grain pasta:
Whole Grain Durum Wheat Flour, Semolina (Wheat), Durum Wheat Flour, Oat Fiber.
Hmmm… see how we have “whole grain durum wheat flour” followed by both “semolina” and “durum wheat flour”? Those second and third flours are not whole grain — meaning this pasta is only partially deserving of the “whole grain” label it’s sporting.
So before you even buy a package of “whole” grain or “whole” wheat pasta, read the ingredients.
If there is any flour that doesn’t say “whole,” you aren’t getting 100% whole grain.
SIDE NOTE: The oat fiber listed last? That’s there to bump up the fiber content. If this pasta was entirely whole grain, the oat fiber would be unnecessary.
In the end, this is a higher fiber option than white pasta, containing 6g of fiber in a serving that provides 41g of overall carbs (over 14% of carbs are fiber). However, this isn’t a truly “whole grain” product, if that matters to you.
What about veggie pasta?
Like this one?
Semolina (Wheat), Durum Flour (Wheat, Dried Carrot, Dried Tomato, Dried Spinach, Niacin, Iron (Ferrous Sulfate), Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid.
I see no whole grain in that ingredient list.
In fact, it’s JUST LIKE the white pasta ingredients but with some added carrot, tomato and spinach.
The added vegetables do add a little more to the fiber content of the pasta, with this one containing 4g of fiber per serving and 40g total carbs (that’s 10% of carbs as fiber). So this isn’t quite the blood sugar bomb that white pasta is, but if you’re concerned with whole grains, this still isn’t cutting it.
Finally, let’s look at a whole wheat pasta:
Organic Whole Wheat Semolina, Water.
Now that’s what a “whole wheat” pasta ingredient list should look like.
In terms of nutrition, the profile on this pasta isn’t all that different than the Barilla pasta nutrition profile:
- serving size: 2 ounces, just 1/8 of the box
- fat: 1.5g
- protein: 7g
- carbs: 40g, of which 5g is fiber (12.5% of carbs are fiber)
One myth I’ve heard repeatedly about whole wheat pasta is that it’s higher in protein — in this case, maybe not. At least, not for this store brand.
And while the fiber content is naturally higher than the white pasta option, this whole wheat pasta still suffers from one major issue all pastas share:
Misleading serving sizes.
This pasta might be whole grain, but were I making this at home myself, I’d still eat 1/4 of the box instead of 1/8.
And that’s still an overload on carbs, considering that most sedentary Americans do not need 80+ carbs at dinner alone.
So is pasta healthy for anyone?
Save this as a treat when you’re in a really fabulous restaurant that makes their own. A plate of luke warm rigatoni from a local catering company isn’t worth it.
Just eat some carrots, tomatoes and spinach and get your fiber, vitamins and minerals in a more healthful and direct way.
Whole wheat pasta:
If you need to eat a lot of carbs — maybe you’re an endurance athlete, maybe you’re a 3-sport high school athlete going through a growth spurt — then whole wheat pasta might work for you, given that you have no problems with gluten tolerance.
But if you don’t play 756 sports, if you’re not planning to do a triathlon in the next few months, if you have any desire to lose body fat, or if you have any concern for keeping your blood sugar steady, you should probably skip the whole wheat pasta.
That likely applies to 90% of us.
Stick to any other minimally processed carbohydrate source, especially ones with more reasonable carb totals per serving — gluten-free oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes.
And if you don’t need to think about gluten, there are better ways to eat wheat that won’t carry the same unreasonable serving sizes and high carb totals.
Or just skip the wheat altogether.
Oats, brown rice, and sweet potatoes are cheaper anyway.