Store-Bought Pasta Options: You May Think You're Eating 'Healthy'... But Are You?

Yes -- our pasta has evolved, and you can be certain that the pasta aisle in your store today has a lot more options than ever before! But new varieties bring a new level of confusion. Is your pasta really as healthy as you think it is, or are you being fooled by front-of-package claims?
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golden yellow dry soup noodles...
golden yellow dry soup noodles...

Everybody loves pasta -- even if you have a fear of carbs and choose not to eat it due to its high carbohydrate content, you probably still love it and wish you could eat it. Can you imagine the excitement and promise that flew through the country when a string of "healthy" pasta options hit the grocery store shelves? Some were low in carbohydrates, others made with real vegetables, and some made with whole grains to offset the sugar high that is associated with refined carboydrates. Yes -- our pasta has evolved, and you can be certain that the pasta aisle in your store today has a lot more options than ever before! But new varieties bring a new level of confusion. Is your pasta really as healthy as you think it is, or are you being fooled by front-of-package claims? Here are some popular pasta varieties and what to look for to ensure you're making the healthiest choice.

"Whole Grain" Pastas

It's a dark color, it says "whole grain" on the box, it may even make additional claims like "heart-healthy" or "high in fiber." So... it must be great, right? Well, maybe not. The question to ask is whether the whole grain pasta of choice is 100 percent whole grain. The only way to know this is to ignore the front-of-package claims and head straight to the ingredients list.

Why does the whole grain content matter? It matters because refined grains (grains that have been stripped of some of the healthiest components of the wheat grain) are often associated with negative health effects such as increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, 100 percent whole grains have been associated with decreased inflammation, a reduced risk for heart disease and even a decrease in all-cause mortality. Just because a product has whole grains in it doesn't mean the entire product is whole grain. You may be eating a pasta that is partly refined, and thus probably not as great for your overall health as an option that is entirely, and truly, whole grain. While whole grain blends are better options than pastas that are completely refined, you can still do better.

The trick -- manufacturers will highlight the words "whole grain" or "whole wheat" even though only a small percentage of the product may truly be 100 percent whole grain. The truth -- look for an actual percentage (100 percent), or only one ingredient in the label. That one ingredient should have the word "whole" in it as well.

Vegetable Pastas

Do you struggle getting your veggies in every day? Fear not, there is a pasta that can help you get them in! Well... not really. Spinach and tomato pasta varieties have been fooling us for years, but now manufacturers are taking an extra step and promising consumers they'll get a whole serving of veggies in their sugar-rising serving of white pasta. While the part about getting a serving of vegetables may be true, that serving will be void of the fiber of the "real" vegetables and may be in a powder form that may not match the absorption qualities of the real deal. Consumers, however, think that the veggie pasta varieties are "healthy" because, of course, it has vegetables. But, that's like saying if you put some strawberries on ice cream or a tomato slice on a cheeseburger, you've made those meals "healthy" as well. Veggie pasta is usually white flour with some vegetable flour thrown in. Why not use 100 percent whole grain pasta and throw some zucchini in a delicious tomato sauce instead? Sure, it may take you a few more minutes to prepare, but the added benefits you'll get will be worth it!

Pastas That Claim To Be Packed (Through Fortification) With Vitamins and Minerals

Like an Italian vitamin, many pastas that are fortified with vitamins and minerals seem like a great buy. After all, you'll get all the nutrients you're not getting from your less-than-perfect diet, right? Wrong. Fortified pastas are usually a white pasta that will peak and drop your blood sugar quicker than you can say "ciao bella!" causing you to be hungry for more. Guess what that "more" can lead to? More pasta, more blood sugar fluctuations, more empty calories and more weight gain! Not all fortified pastas are bad for you, though. It's all about reading the label and finding options that are mainly or entirely whole grain and high in fiber. They do exist; you just need to look for them.

"Low-Carbohydrate" Pastas

While many "carb friendly" pastas have been popular with diabetic patients, many non-diabetic patients have bought these products thinking they would be healthy for them as well. However, these pasta boxes are labeled with confusing terms such as "protected carbs" and "digestible carbs." At this point, more research is needed to truly assess whether these low-carbohydrate options truly translate into a healthier product for the pasta lover. The culprit, again, is that you may be getting a product comprised of completely refined flour with a few secret ingredients thrown in that don't affect your blood sugar.

Gluten-Free Pastas

Let me first start by saying there are many individuals who can benefit from a gluten-free diet pasta. Individuals with celiac disease or those that have a gluten sensitivity should steer clear of gluten, a protein found in foods processed from wheat, barley and rye. But, that's not everyone, and not every gluten-free product is healthy. Many options may still be made with refined grains such as white rice. If you're going gluten-free, look for whole grain options that are made with brown rice, amaranth or quinoa flour. Recently, gluten-free pasta made with banana powder made the headlines for its lower glycemic value compared to traditional gluten free pastas due to the presence of resistant starch in the product. More to come on that one!

Shirataki Noodles

While these noodles are not exactly pasta, they are growing in popularity due to their extremely low carbohydrate and calorie content. Shirataki noodles are made from either the root of a yam-like plant or with tofu, and are mainly comprised of a dietary fiber called glucomannan. These noodles have a very different texture than traditional pasta options, and can be bought wet or dry at Asian specialty stores as well as many traditional grocery stores. These noodles won't increase your blood sugar, and the calorie content can't even be compared to traditional pasta. However, don't expect the same characteristics or pairings with this Japanese noodle as you would other pasta options. Shirataki noodles also lack taste, so they are best pared with hearty soup dishes.

Bottom line -- why not go back to the basics and eat plain old 100 percent whole grain pasta without all the hype? I guarantee you, your body will reap the benefits if you go back to the basics -- one ingredient, no magical claims, lots of health benefits! Sounds like an easy plan to me.

For more by Kristin Kirkpatrick M.S., R.D., L.D., click here.

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