Is pasta healthy?
How can pasta fit into a balanced diet and is wholemeal pasta the best choice? Find answers to these and other questions with our expert guide written by registered nutritionist Nicola Shubrook.
What is pasta?
Originating from Italy, pasta is made from durum wheat and available in various shapes and sizes, including long thin strips, bows and shells. The shape of the pasta relates to the Italian region the pasta originates from, although certain shapes work better in some recipes. Available as refined white or wholemeal varieties, pasta may be fresh or dried.
Fresh pasta is made using plain 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 found in the chiller section of most supermarkets.
Dried pasta, on the other hand, is made from semolina, which is milled from grinding the grain of durum wheat and then combined with water. It is made into a paste and moulded into different shapes, dried until all the moisture has evaporated and the pasta hardens, this extends the product’s shelf life.
You may also see different coloured pastas available such as red, green or purple. These have vegetable powders added to them such as tomato, spinach or beetroot to give colour rather than to add any additional health benefits.
Pasta is cooked by boiling in water for a few minutes, if fresh, or up to 15 minutes if dried. The required consistency is known as ‘al dente’ meaning ‘firm to the bite’.
Get inspiration with our delicious pasta recipes including spaghetti puttanesca and orecchiette with anchovies and purple sprouting broccoli.
Nutritional profile of pasta
A 230g portion of dried white pasta (boiled) provides:
• 11g protein
• 0.9g fat
• 75.7g carbs
• 1.4g sugars
• 6.0g fibre
Wholemeal pasta contains almost 50% more fibre than white, with just one serving providing about a third of the recommended daily amount of fibre for adults.
Is pasta healthy or unhealthy?
Refined white pasta is most popular, however, eating too many refined carbs has been associated with an increased risk of a number of conditions. These include heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Wholewheat pasta is a better option, thanks to its higher fibre content – this will help to fill you up, support digestive health and lower the risk of the aforementioned conditions. That said if you prefer white pasta, fresh pasta, which has a higher protein content, has less of an impact on blood sugar levels than the equivalent portion of another popular carb, white rice.
Wholegrain pasta is lower in calories and contributes more vitamins and minerals than the white, refined equivalent, making it a healthier choice.
How can I make pasta healthier?
Recent research found that cooking pasta and then cooling it changes its carbohydrate structure, and increases a type of starch called 'resistant starch'. As its name suggests this starch is resistant to our digestive enzymes, which are responsible for breaking them down to release glucose – this normally causes an increase in blood sugar.
According to scientist Dr Denise Robertson, from the University of Surrey, cooked-then-cooled pasta acts more like fibre in the body. This creates a smaller glucose spike (resulting in better blood sugar control), helps to feed the good bacteria in the gut and also means 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 richer in resistant starch, reducing the rise in blood glucose by an impressive 50%.
Is pasta safe for everyone?
When eaten in moderation, pasta may be enjoyed as part of a varied, balanced diet. However, pasta is made from wheat and therefore contains gluten, this means if you have coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten intolerance you should avoid regular pasta and look for products which are specifically labelled ‘gluten free’. Such products are typically made from brown rice, chickpea, green pea or buckwheat flour.
If you experience a problem with digesting gluten-containing grains refer to your GP or registered dietician before making any significant dietary changes.
Healthy pasta recipes
Browse our healthy pasta recipe collection for inspiration.
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This article was reviewed on 3 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
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.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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