By Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC
Pasta has been dropped from many home menus like a hot potato. Its reputation has been unfairly tarnished by being lumped together with selections like white bread and sugary foods. Besides likely providing fewer nutrients, sugar-laden options and foods made with refined flours can be quickly digested and can lead to a quick rise in blood sugar readings. Yet, according to scientific research, pasta made from semolina wheat, also known as white pasta, when cooked properly, has a very different effect on blood sugar levels than does white bread or sugar.
The key is how the pasta is cooked and how it is served.
And who doesn’t love pasta? Not only is it a delicious meal offering, it’s also speedy to prepare and even speedier if you cook it properly.
Cook it right
Recent research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, evaluated the impact on blood sugar readings of two different kinds of semolina pasta, cooked al dente – Italian for “to the tooth”- versus other carbohydrate-rich choices like bread and couscous made from the same flour. The scientists looked at the food matrix or the structure of each food which influences how fast the food is digested. Because of the matrix or structure of the pasta, it wasn’t chewed as finely as the bread and couscous. The larger particles that remained slowed the digestion of the pasta.
As a result, the glycemic index (GI) of the pasta, or the rate at which the carbohydrate enters the bloodstream, is much lower than other products made from the same flour.
In the study, both penne and spaghetti were compared to bread and couscous and, as with other research, both shapes of the noodles yielded lower blood sugar and insulin readings – a plus for both healthy people and those with diabetes.
That’s where the proper cooking comes in. Overcooked pasta is not al dente and is digested much like other refined grain products.
Steer clear of portion distortion
While pasta has traditionally been considered a healthy meal option in places like Italy, portion sizes do indeed make a difference. You can get too much of a good thing. Pasta portions here in North America are often similar to what would feed a family of four in Italy.
But take heart, keeping serving sizes in check doesn’t mean having a skimpy amount of pasta. In fact, the ways to avoid large servings are the very same to maximize both your nutrition and pleasure.
Pasta can be a fabulous tool for healthy eats
When you’re planning a meal, think of pasta as a base for a nutrient-packed one. It’s a vehicle, of sorts, to deliver an assortment of wholesome ingredients. Also consider that it’s a way to introduce or add certain ingredients that might otherwise be a tough sell. For instance, while bean lovers would have no issue in having some cannellini or white kidney beans at dinner, picky eaters might. But adding a small amount pureed canned ones to a red sauce is a great way to change tastes. The amount can slowly be increased and then the beans can finally be left intact – or not.
Expand your pasta horizons beyond a simple red or meat sauce- not that there’s anything wrong with those toppings. But keeping to moderate serving sizes can be more difficult with just adding a sauce on top. For example, mixing a cup of cooked pasta with a couple of cups of various sautéed vegetables (peppers, onions, mushrooms, pulses) would yield a very satisfying meal, both visually and taste-wise.
And depending on your choice, the dish could be ready in the time it takes to cook the pasta.
Potential appealing combos
Here are just a few combinations to consider. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer for options and while you’re at it, think of a pasta meal as a terrific way to decrease food waste by using bits and pieces of items, fresh or leftover, in your fridge or freezer.
- Don’t skimp on seasonings like garlic and fresh herbs, as they too offer a bounty of benefits, such as phytonutrients including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. As well, use some of your favourite oil as having a source of fat at the meal boosts the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamin E and carotenoids, those colourful pigments found in produce. Top most of these with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Also keep a little of pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta as adding some to your pasta dish as you finish it off on the stove can bring the dish together.
- Sautéed vegetables – start off with chopped garlic and sliced or diced onions and then add options like peppers and mushrooms. Go seasonal with asparagus, fiddleheads and peas in spring and winter squash, Brussels sprouts and root vegetables in the autumn. Or add a frozen stir fry vegetable mix to the onions and garlic.
- Pantry pasta – drained canned tuna with canned chickpeas and /or artichoke hearts. Add in some capers (optional) and diced, fresh or canned tomatoes or cherry/grape tomatoes.
- Pulse pasta mixes – garlic, onions, peppers and your lentil of choice (not red as it won’t hold its shape) along with diced, fresh or canned tomatoes or cherry/grape tomatoes; garlic, canned white beans and sautéed spinach.
- Other pairings:
- Broccoli rabe or broccoli, cooked together in the pot with a short pasta, and then tossed in a pan with canola oil, sautéed garlic and a few smashed anchovies.
- A generous amount of caramelized onions and some greens
- Sautéed greens of your choice, such as kale, chard and mustard or beet greens with fresh or roasted garlic.
- Seared fresh or frozen fish and shellfish mixed with sautéed vegetables. Skip the parmesan cheese topping.
When you’re mixing your pasta, just before serving, add your toppings and some soft greens, like arugula or baby spinach, so they will just wilt instead of being cooked.
Get inspired by these delicious pasta recipe ideas:
Creating a rich textures sauce is easy and rich in protein when using soft tofu! Try it out for a new twist on a family favourite.
This easy to prepare dish is perfect for busy weeknights and is sure to please everyone at the table.