Why dry pasta can and should be eaten regularly as part of a healthy diet.
Before I fell in love with Italian food and went to cooking school in Italy, pasta was an occasional indulgence I saved for special occasions. I ate it a few times a year at special dinners or dusted off my pasta machine to make it for friends and family at dinner parties.
I prized fresh pasta and considered dry pasta found in boxes on grocery store shelves to be nothing but empty carbs, especially when made from refined white flour. I ordered fancy hand-rolled ravioli and hand-cut fettuccine in restaurants as a treat and skipped the boxed pasta altogether at home.
Then I went to Italy on vacation and fell in love with the Italian cuisine — and an Italian man. It was the man who first opened my eyes to the potential of dry pasta when he confessed that he ate it most days. I remember how absurd this seemed at the time as I was already feeling the pants-shrinking effects of a vacation in Italy. How could anyone eat pasta every day?
That was years ago now. I’ve since moved to Italy and earned a master’s degree in Italian cooking and can confirm that I eat pasta most days (with the same Italian man) and I can also explain why.
First, you need to understand that dry pasta and fresh pasta are not created equal. When I say that I eat pasta most days, I am not referring to fresh hand-rolled pasta. I certainly eat fresh pasta more frequently than I did in the United States but not daily.
Your body digests dry pasta more efficiently
Dry pasta is not only easier and quicker to prepare than fresh pasta, no pasta machine or kneading required, but it is healthier too. The glycemic index, which measures the impact of specific foods on blood sugar levels, can explain why.
Your body digests foods with a low glycemic score more efficiently, which means that these foods leave you feeling fuller for longer. Dry pasta, like vegetables and legumes, scores low on the glycemic index, whereas fresh pasta, like white bread, scores high.
According to the Harvard Medical School, foods that score low on the glycemic index can also “prevent a host of chronic conditions, especially diabetes, but it can also ward off heart disease and various cancers.”
Your body digests dry pasta more slowly because it is made from a hard-wheat flour known as durum wheat semolina and is manufactured in a way that makes it physically harder. This is the reason that it can keep its shape and last for months on your kitchen shelf, and why it takes longer to cook than fresh pasta. It’s literally tougher.
Dry pasta gets its shape and becomes fusilli or penne or spaghetti by being passed through a pasta extruder. This process gives the pasta a protective coating that further slows down the rate at which sugar is released into your bloodstream.
To score low on the glycemic index, dry pasta must also be cooked al dente which means to the bite in Italian and refers to pasta that is still a bit firm or hard when you bite into it. Overcooked pasta has a high glycemic score.
Unlike dry pasta, fresh pasta is often made from soft wheat which contributes to the tender and delicate texture that makes it so delicious. This is why it cooks faster, and like overcooked dry pasta, scores high on the glycemic index.
Ok, but the flour we make dry pasta from is also refined white flour, right? Aren’t we encouraged by nutritionists to replace foods made from refined white flour with whole grains?
It is true that dry pasta is made with refined white flour and that many nutrients are lost when the flour is milled. This is not the case with whole-grain pasta which contains more fiber and which also scores low on the glycemic index.
The lost nutrients are sometimes added back in pasta sold in the United States. This is the “enriched” pasta that you can find in most American grocery stores.
But not in Italy. Italians put the nutrients back through the pasta toppings instead, often choosing fiber-rich vegetables and legumes and using heart-healthy olive oil.
Pasta is an easy way to eat more vegetables
Pasta is an easy and clever way to add more vegetables to your diet. Tomatoes for sure, but also eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, and even Brussels sprouts are all delicious on pasta. Pasta makes cooking a farmers’ market-fresh meal simple, as almost any vegetable can find its way into a tasty pasta dish.
In fact, the National Pasta Association claims that “children and adults who consume pasta also tend to consume more vegetables and have healthier diets overall”.
You can choose enriched pasta or whole-grain pasta but the fact that dry pasta made from refined white flour lacks some nutrients is not enough to make it bad for you. It matters what you put on top.
Pasta is cheap, easy to prepare, and delicious
Once I accepted that pasta was healthy and a lot more than an empty carbohydrate, I could appreciate its other obvious strengths. Cheap, easy to prepare, and delicious, pasta is a brilliant dinner solution.
Most dry pasta recipes only require a few cheap ingredients, many of which are easy to keep stocked. Pasta, canned tomatoes, and parmesan cheese all keep well, as do common additions like bacon and anchovies. Dry pasta is a perfect last-minute backup meal when there isn’t time to stop at the grocery store.
The Fifth World Pasta Congress, which was attended by a group of scientists and nutritionists, pointed out that “pasta is an aﬀordable, healthy choice available in almost all societies,” and that “promoting the aﬀordability and accessibility of pasta meals can help overcome the misperception that healthy foods are too expensive.”
As with most Italian cooking, pasta dishes are often quick and easy to prepare and lend themselves to improvisation. The recipes tend to be flexible and most measurements are only suggestions that can easily be adjusted to what you happen to have on hand and still produce a tasty meal.
Which brings us to the most important reason to eat dry pasta on a regular basis, it’s delicious. There is a reason that pasta is often synonymous with comfort food. It tastes good and feels like an indulgence.
Fortunately, the good news is that dry pasta, when made with heart-healthy toppings like vegetables and legumes, doesn’t need to be an indulgence and can be a regular staple of a balanced diet.
So unless you are reading this in Italy, there is a good chance you aren’t eating enough dry pasta. Here are five tips to help you add more dry pasta to your diet in a healthy way.
- Choose a dry pasta made from durum wheat semolina that comes in a fun shape.
- Cook your pasta al dente which means to the tooth in Italian and refers to pasta that is still firm to the bite.
- Top your pasta with fiber-rich vegetables and heart-healthy olive oil.
- Add beans and legumes as they are low in calories and high in protein and fiber.
- Skip the jarred pasta sauces as they often contain unnecessary sugars and preservatives. The same goes for boxed macaroni and cheese as according to the New York Times, most of it contains potentially harmful chemicals.