Alternative Pastas: Which One is Healthiest?

Diet fads come and go. This we know for sure. In the 1980's and early 90's, pasta was the thing: it was virtually fat-free and perfect for filling up on quick energy without risking excessive weight gain. Or so we thought. Today most nutritionists and doctors believe in a more balanced approach, relying heavily on protein and carbohydrates along with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy fats. Now the focus is on whole grains. Cooking Light Magazine reported that "according to five long-term studies in the United States, Finland, and Norway, people who eat large amounts of whole grains have significantly lower rates of heart disease than those who don't."

When you go to the grocery store to try out a whole-grain pasta, there is a huge variety to accommodate different diets and tastes. So how do we choose? Which one is really better for you?

We set out to explore a few of the most common, and here's what we found:

Whole Wheat Pasta: In general, whole wheat pastas have a higher protein and fiber count than their semolina cousins, and are better sources of other important nutrients such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. Whole wheat pasta has a nice nutty flavor and is a heartier noodle, making it well-suited for more substantial sauces.

Spelt Pasta: Spelt is an ancient, nutty-flavored grain that's remarkably high in both fiber and protein (many brands boast up to 8 grams of fiber/serving). According to VitaSpelt, one plateful of whole-grain spelt pasta provides 50 percent of the daily recommended protein requirement for women.

Brown Rice Pasta: This is a popular choice with the gluten-free crowd, and even popular with parents that have young children as this whole grain choice has a noticeably mild flavor and can withstand much more cooking before it gets mushy (in other words, it's hard to mess up).

Quinoa Pasta: This South American grain is extremely high in protein and iron and boasts a low glycemic index, resulting in a slower rates of digestion (you'll stay full longer and absorb more of the food's nutrients).

Soba (buckwheat) Pasta: Due to their buckwheat content, soba noodles are a slow-releasing carbohydrate, meaning they're a source of good long-lasting energy. In addition, you can cut calories virtually in half when you switch from regular white pasta to soba noodles.

So, what can we really take away from this comparison? It's obvious now that whole-grain pastas pack a punch that doesn't happen with regular pasta. And it's clear there are numerous interesting whole-grain choices at major grocery store chains. Where one boasts fiber, another boasts protein and fast-burning carbohydrates, so how is one to choose? It seems that the answer lies in taste and preference at this point. Because each whole-grain option is a giant nutritional step up from typical semolina-based pastas, you're doing well by just trying one in the first place. So take it slow and see what you think.

Do you have a favorite whole-grain pasta?

Related: Do You Cook With Whole Wheat Pasta?

(Image: Emma Christensen)

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