The whole truth: How healthy is your pasta?

/ Source: TODAY contributor

Standard pastas are made with refined wheat flour. During the refining process, the nutrient-rich outer bran shell and inner germ layer are removed from the grain, leaving just the starchy endosperm. This process strips the wheat of much of its fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, leaving you with a much weaker product, nutritionally speaking. Some nutrients, including iron and a handful of B vitamins, are added back during manufacturing (hence the term “enriched flour”), but these represent only a fraction of what is initially removed from the grain.

Here’s the good news: There are plenty of more-nutritious pasta options for you to boil up at home. Here’s my rundown.

100 percent whole-grain

A 100 percent whole-grain pasta includes all three layers of the wheat kernel: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Because nothing is removed during processing, whole-grain pastas contain more natural fiber and micronutrients than their white, refined cousins. And thanks to the extra fiber, whole-grain pastas tend to be more filling than traditional white pasta. What’s more, regularly choosing whole-grains over the refined type is associated with numerous health benefits, including lower blood pressure and reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Admittedly, whole-grain pasta tends to have a chewier texture and “grainier” taste than regular pasta, but food technology is improving and whole-grain varieties have come a long way in the last few years. My best advice is to make sure you don’t overcook whole-grain pastas; follow the package directions so your pasta doesn’t come out gummy or mushy.

Three ways to determine if a pasta is 100 percent whole-grain:

  • Check the ingredients list. All grains/flours should be preceded by the word “whole.” Brown rice and oat flours are automatically whole-grain.

  • Check the front of package. It should clearly state “100 percent whole-grain” or “100 percent whole-wheat.” Make sure you specifically see “100 percent” on the label!

  • Look for products that contain the orange WHOLE-GRAIN stamp.

Suggested brands to try:

Mueller’s 100 percent whole-wheat pastas

De Cecco 100 percent whole-wheat pastas

Hodgson Mill 100 percent whole-wheat pastas

Eden Organic 100 percent whole-wheat pastas

Heartland 100 percent whole-wheat pastas

Eden Organic 100 percent Whole-Grain Kamut & Quinoa Twisted Pair

Eden Organic 100 percent Whole-Grain Rye Spirals

Hodgson Mill gluten-free brown rice pastas

Whole-wheat-and-white blends

These pastas are made with a mix of whole-wheat and refined flours. Because they are a blend, they are less coarse and chewy than 100 percent whole-wheat varieties, but still offer more nutrition than traditional white pasta. Blends are perfect for families who are trying to make the switch to whole-grain, but want to take “baby steps” and give themselves time to gradually adjust to its taste and texture.

Suggested brands to try:

Ronzoni Healthy Harvest Whole-Wheat Blend Pasta

Barilla Whole-Grain Pasta

Unique/interesting blends

These pastas are not 100 percent whole-grain, but they have a plethora of healthful ingredients blended in for extra nutrition. For example, the brands listed below contain lentils and beans (which contribute both protein and fiber) and flax seed (which adds heart-healthy omega-3 fats). These brands tend to look and taste more like white pasta than whole-grain or whole-grain blends, so they’re great options for picky kids who avoid eating anything “brown.”

Suggested brands to try:

Barilla Plus

Heartland Plus