Everything You Need to Know About High-Protein Pasta
As someone who writes about both food and wellness, I’m constantly being introduced to new food products that have some kind of “healthy” spin. And frankly, almost all of them are disappointing. Dehydrated vegetables seasoned with ranch don’t taste like Doritos. Sugar-free funfetti protein bites might look like cake balls, but the aftertaste is funky and they feel like chalk in your mouth.
Once in a blue moon, though, I’ll taste some newfangled health food innovation and think, “I would actually buy this.” Such was the case with Banza, the chickpea-based pasta that boasts “double the protein, four times the fiber, and nearly half the net carbs” of traditional pasta. I first tried it in 2015 and it’s been present in my pantry ever since.
In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered a few other bean-based pasta brands that are actually worth buying. But at the same time, I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of any food that presents itself as a healthier version of something else. Are these swaps ever actually worth it? Does a little extra fiber or protein hidden somewhere you wouldn’t expect to find it really make a difference? As with most nutrition-related questions, the answers are floating around in the gray area of each person’s unique tastes, food preferences, priorities, and eating styles.
Higher-protein pasta is great if you don’t eat a lot of protein from other sources.
Everybody’s big on protein these days, and for good reason. Protein helps build and retain muscle and is important for fullness and satiety, says Erik Bustillo, R.D. That said, most people are likely eating enough protein without supplementing with protein-enriched foods. The USDA recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, which for the average 150-pound woman works out to 55 grams per day. (For reference, a four-ounce chicken breast — a smaller portion than most restaurants serve —has 26 grams of protein, nearly half the recommended daily amount.) And even foods that aren’t great sources do pack some protein, which can add up over the course of the day: two slices of wheat bread contains about 6 grams, a cup of 2% milk contains 10 grams, and 1/2 cup of oats contains 5 grams.
In other words, most of us don’t need to be swapping regular pasta for higher-protein alternatives in order to meet our daily protein goals. But if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re getting little or no protein from animal sources — so it’s more important to choose higher-protein plant foods like beans and legumes. Plus, most plant proteins are incomplete proteins, explains Bustillo, meaning each one doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids the way complete animal proteins (and soy) do. In order to get enough of all nine, vegetarians and vegans should eat a variety of plant-based protein sources each day. Swapping bean-based pasta for grain-based is one way to do this.
Athletes, very active individuals, and people on low-calorie weight-loss diets also often have higher protein needs, says Bustillo, since protein is so important for building, and maintaining, lean muscle mass. Swapping higher-protein pasta for regular is one way to meet this increased need.
These bean-based pastas are also gluten-free, and have lots of fiber.
The majority of higher-protein pastas on the market (and all three of the brands I like) are gluten-free, which makes them a great option for anyone with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
These pastas are also higher in fiber than pasta made from white or wheat flour, which is a plus. Getting adequate fiber — at least 25 grams per day for women, and 30 grams per day for men, according to USDA guidelines — is important for keeping things regular in your digestive system, and for health in general. Fiber-rich foods break down slowly in your body and provide a steady source of energy, explains Ha Nguyen, RDN, LDN of Yummy Body Nutrition. So, foods with plenty of fiber will likely keep you full for longer than foods with less.
All that said, there’s nothing wrong with eating regular pasta.
Adding chickpea-based pasta to your pantry can be a fun way to experiment and shake things up, but you shouldn’t buy into the hype that you need to give up regular pasta in order to be healthy. You can easily add protein with meat, cheese, or beans; tossing in some vegetables will add fiber.
It’s also worth noting that the nutritional difference between regular pasta and higher-protein pastas isn’t as big as you might think. Here’s a breakdown per 2-ounce serving. There’s more fiber and protein in the bean-based pastas, sure, but it won’t make or break an otherwise healthy diet.
- Classic Barilla pasta: 200 calories, 3 grams fiber, 7 grams protein
- Banza pasta: 190 calories, 8 grams fiber, 14 grams protein
- Explore Cuisine green lentil pasta: 200 calories, 4 grams fiber, 12 grams protein
If you do want to experiment with higher-protein pastas, these are the three I recommend.
Another thing you need to know is that not all higher-protein pastas are created equal. In my opinion, the ones made from chickpeas or lentils taste the best — or the closest to typical pasta.
As I mentioned, Banza was my introduction to higher-protein pastas. It’s a little grittier than regular pasta, but there’s no funky taste. I usually boil it for a minute or two longer than the recommended 4 to 6 minutes, because this makes it a little bit softer. All of Banza’s shapes are made with the same pasta recipe, but I buy the shells for homemade mac and cheese, and the rotini to mix with tomato sauce and vegetables.
Like Banza, this green and red lentil penne has a little extra grit but no overpowering bean flavor. Explore Cuisine also sells chickpea-based pasta, but it’s not as good as the Banza version, in my opinion. I like tossing lentil-based penne with pesto, and either eating it hot with roasted vegetables, or cold in a pasta salad.
First, let me say that boxed mac and cheese is totally different than the kind you make from scratch. If you love rich, textured cheese sauce, this higher-protein boxed mac and cheese isn’t for you. But, if you’re a fan of the old-school blue box Kraft stuff, this higher-protein alternative — it’s made with red lentil and quinoa flours, and has 290 calories, 7 grams of fiber, and 16 grams of protein per serving— is actually a really great swap. As with the Kraft version, the cheese sauce flavor is so overwhelming that you don’t even notice the pasta (which, again, is a little grittier but doesn’t have any weird flavor).
What are you favorite protein pasta brands or recipes? Tell us in the comments below.