Pasta
Photo: Bellingham Pasta

Pasta

Americans consume approximately twenty pounds of pasta per person per year1. Pasta, or noodles, is central to many of the world’s cuisines because it adapts to various grains, pairs well with an endless selection of sauces, seasonings, and leftovers, and is a shelf-stable, low-cost, nourishing, and easily prepared staple.

Most pasta contains durum wheat milled and refined into semolina. Semolina is ideal for pasta because it is a coarser, harder, and higher protein than all-purpose flour.2 The boxed pasta you commonly see on grocery store shelves is made by mixing semolina and water. After kneading the resulting dough it is laminated (squeezed through rollers), sent through an extruder (to determine pasta shape), and dried.3 Whole grain pasta, usually made from unrefined durum wheat, is nutritionally superior but differs in taste from its refined counterpart. Since the early 2000s, pasta makers experimenting with wheat varieties and non-wheat grains have reported a boost in sales. 4 This is significant because a love of pasta presents a golden opportunity to improve nutrition by encouraging the consumption of whole-grain pasta.

REFINED VS. WHOLE WHEAT PASTA: NUTRITION AND SENSORY PROPERTIES
Whole grain pasta contains the bran and germ of the grain, so it is higher in fiber, micronutrients, and antioxidants than refined grains. As with bread, the bran and germ particles can negatively affect pasta properties. Wheat pasta, like bread, must develop a gluten matrix to achieve its desired shape. The bran and germ can disrupt the gluten matrix, resulting in a weaker and less cohesive pasta.5 Researchers found that as the whole grain content of pasta increases, bitterness also increases, presumably due to acids in the bran and germ that have antioxidant properties.6 They also found that the roughness and graininess of the pasta increased.7 However, to claim that whole wheat pasta is far superior in nutrition and refined wheat pasta is far superior in taste over-simplifies a complex set of factors.

Denise Webb, Ph.D., RD (who received funding from Barilla America for her article) reminds us that not all refined grains have the same impact on our digestive system: all pasta, including refined pasta, have a low-to-medium glycemic index, which generally means that pasta digestion is a relatively slow process resulting in a slower insulin release.8 This is due to the arrangement of proteins and starches in pasta. Webb also notes that refined pasta, paired with tomato sauces, olive oil, legumes, lean meat, or vegetables, has long been a staple of the Mediterranean diet, a diet pattern associated with reduced chronic disease risk.9 In the United States, dried refined pasta enrichments can include iron, riboflavin, thiamin, and folic acid.10 These micronutrients, except for folic acid, are naturally occurring in whole-grain pasta. Whole-grain pasta has the added benefit of fiber: A cup of cooked pasta (ab0ut 2 oz.) equals roughly a quarter of the daily recommended fiber intake.11 In one study of overweight participants, whole-grain pasta made people feel fuller compared to refined grain pasta, but it did not result in the consumption of fewer calories.12 So, while refined grain pasta does not deserve to be discounted as part of a healthy diet, swapping in whole-grain pasta is an easy and impactful way to meet fiber and whole-grain goals.

Whole-grain pasta has a distinct, nutty flavor that many enjoy. In one study, university students who chose whole-grain pasta were more likely health-conscious and reported that the whole grains were tastier. The health-uninvolved group was less likely to perceive the whole-grain pasta as delicious. 13 This finding suggests that familiarization with whole-grain products can improve acceptance of them.14 But familiarity alone is insufficient; whole-grain pasta must be prepared, of course, in a tasty way! In one study, whole grain pasta needed a shorter optimal cooking time than refined pasta.15 Cooking whole-grain pasta for a shorter period, or al-dente (with a bit of bite), is relevant because the pasta’s gluten network is weaker than that of refined pasta, and over-cooking will adversely affect the texture. In addition to cooking al dente, Barilla recommends pairing whole grain pasta with bold flavors and thick sauces. See their list of recommendations here.

ENCOURAGING WHOLE-GRAIN PASTA CONSUMPTION
Like other whole-grain products, barriers to consumption exist (see our section on Barriers to Whole-Grain Consumption here). Two studies attempt to understand what motivates the consumption of whole-grain pasta on a university campus. In one study, the dining hall pasta selection offered one whole grain option and three refined options. Researchers tested different health messaging claims near the pasta station and found that the psychological message (whole grains will help “reduce fatigue”) was the most effective nudge, increasing whole grain pasta selection by 7.4%16 and suggesting that nutritional messaging that informs the eater is important. In this study, the most popular pasta remained tortellini (refined), and its numbers did not suffer as a result of the whole grain promotion, suggesting that taste and familiarity were the main determinants of pasta selection.17  In a separate study, even among health-conscious students who chose whole-grain pasta, there was uncertainty that the inclusion of whole grains in the diet was essential for health.18 Both of these studies suggest that at least among this university student population, displaying information on the nutritional benefits of whole grains, adding whole grain pasta to menu choices, and improving taste perception contribute to increased consumption.

In a separate study led by Ghislaine Challamel, researchers were interested in determining which among three descriptions of carrots would most increase consumption among Stanford University students.  She writes: “The way we talk about healthy food matters and emphasizing the tasty and enjoyable attributes of food, rather than their healthiness, increased the number of people choosing to eat them, as shown by recent research published by the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC).

“Increasing Vegetable Intake by Emphasizing Tasty and Enjoyable Attributes: A Randomized Controlled Multisite Intervention for Taste-Focused Labeling,” was published in the journal Psychological Science, and compared labels using either healthy, neutral, or tasty messages to describe vegetarian dishes – for example: “Vitamin packed carrots”, “Carrots”, and “Citrus glazed carrots”.

This groundbreaking research shows that:

  1. Using taste-focused labels rather than health-focused labels increases the selection of vegetables by 29 percent;
  2. Compared to health-focused labels, taste-focused labels increase consumption by 39 percent;

  3. If all 57 member institutions of the MCURC implemented taste-focused labeling across the 750,000 meals they serve each day, this would translate to 38,000 more vegetable servings per day.

  4. You can access the manuscript here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797619872191
[1] Densie Webb, “Pasta’s History and Role in Healthful Diets,” Nutrition Today 54, no. 5 (October 2019): 213–20, https://doi.org/10.1097/NT.0000000000000364.
[2] Webb.
[3] Webb.
[4] Marian Burros, “EATING WELL; Most Improved Pasta,” The New York Times, May 18, 2005, sec. Style, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/18/style/dining/eating-well-most-improved-pasta.html.
[5] Ryan West, Koushik Seetharaman, and Lisa M. Duizer, “Effect of Drying Profile and Whole Grain Content on Flavour and Texture of Pasta,” Journal of Cereal Science 58, no. 1 (July 1, 2013): 82–88, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcs.2013.03.018.|
[6] West, Seetharaman, and Duizer.
[7] West, Seetharaman, and Duizer.
[8] Webb, “Pasta’s History and Role in Healthful Diets.”
[9] Webb.
[10] Webb.
[11] Webb.
[12] Iolanda Cioffi et al., “Effects on Satiation, Satiety and Food Intake of Wholegrain and Refined Grain Pasta,” Appetite 107 (December 1, 2016): 152–58, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2016.08.002.
[13] Rungsaran Wongprawmas et al., “Determinants of US University Students’ Willingness to Include Whole Grain Pasta in Their Diet,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 6 (January 2021): 3173, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063173.
[14] Wongprawmas et al.
[15] María Belén Vignola, Mariela Cecilia Bustos, and Gabriela Teresa Pérez, “Comparison of Quality Attributes of Refined and Whole Wheat Extruded Pasta,” LWT 89 (March 1, 2018): 329–35, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2017.10.062.
[16] Giovanni Sogari et al., “The Influence of Health Messages in Nudging Consumption of Whole Grain Pasta,” Nutrients 11, no. 12 (December 6, 2019): 2993, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11122993.
[17] Sogari et al.
[18] Wongprawmas et al., “Determinants of US University Students’ Willingness to Include Whole Grain Pasta in Their Diet.”