Is pasta healthy?
What does a healthy portion of pasta look like, how can it fit into a balanced diet, and is wholemeal pasta the best option? Find out with our expert guide.
What is pasta?
Originally from Italy, pasta is made from durum wheat – it can be made into various different shapes and sizes, such as long thin strips or shell-like shapes. Like bread, there are white and wholemeal varieties, but you can also buy it fresh or dried.
Fresh pasta is made using plain flour or ‘00 flour’, water and eggs, kneaded into a dough and then rolled and cut into the desired shape. (00 is the grading given to the texture of the flour – 0 flour is quite coarse, while 000 is much finer.) Fresh pasta only lasts a day or two and is usually found in the chilled section of supermarkets.
Dried pasta is made from semolina, which is made from grinding the heart of durum wheat, and water. It is then made into a paste and moulded into different shapes, such as shells or tubes, and left to dry at a low temperature for several days until all the moisture has evaporated and it dries hard, allowing it to be stored for a longer period.
To cook pasta, it's typically boiled in water for a few minutes, if fresh, or up to 15 minutes for dried pasta.
Nutritional profile of pasta
Pasta is primarily a carbohydrate, but it also contains a good amount of fibre and some protein. Wholemeal pasta contains almost twice as much fibre as white pasta, with just one 100g serving providing about a third of the total recommended daily allowance of fibre for adults.
Pasta has a good mineral content including calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, as well as B vitamins.
A note on preparation
Recent research found that the process of cooking pasta and then cooling it down changes its structure, turning it into something called 'resistant starch'. This means that it's more resistant to the enzymes in our gut which break down carbohydrates and release glucose – this normally causes a rapid increase in blood sugar.
According to scientist Dr Denise Robertson, from the University of Surrey, cooked-then-cooled pasta acts more like fibre in your body. This creates a smaller glucose spike (resulting in better blood sugar control), helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut and also means that you absorb fewer calories from the same quantity of pasta.
Even more surprising, when the leftover pasta in the study was reheated, it became even more of a resistant starch, reducing the rise in blood glucose by a huge 50%.
What is a healthy portion size?
The NHS recommends that one third of our diet should be made up of starchy foods such as pasta, and that the higher-fibre wholemeal varieties are the healthier option. As a guide, about 90-100g is a good-sized portion – about two large handfuls.
To have pasta as part of a balanced meal, it's best eaten with some protein such as chicken, beef or a little cheese, as well as several portions of vegetables, such as a veg-packed tomato sauce or a large green side salad. Creamy or cheese-based sauces can add significantly to the fat, salt and calorie content of the dish, so these should be eaten as an occasional treat rather than as an everyday option.
How to buy the healthiest pasta
Wholewheat pasta is by far the best pasta option, thanks to its high fibre content – this will help to fill you up for longer, support digestive health and lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. You can simply swap white pasta for wholewheat pasta in any recipe. Fresh pasta is lower in calories than dried, but also lower in fibre.
You may also see different coloured pastas on the shelves such as red, green or purple. These have usually just had different vegetable powders added to them such as tomato, spinach or beetroot to give colour rather than any additional health benefits.
Pasta does contain gluten, so look for varieties such as brown rice, chickpea, green pea or buckwheat pasta for a gluten-free alternative.
The shape of the pasta doesn't make much difference to the nutrition – this is mostly to do with the regions that they come from.
Healthy pasta recipes
Browse our healthy pasta recipe collection for inspiration.
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This article was published on 28th September 2018.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
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