Pasta Can Be A Healthy Food
One of the major villains in the “all food will kill you” philosophy of the last couple of decades has been pasta. The carbohydrate-rich concoction of flour and eggs has been blamed for everything from obesity to ingrown toenails. Fad “low-carb” and “no-carb” diets have proliferated with concomitant celebrity endorsements, enriching scads of “doctors” of questionable degree and their greedy publishing houses. Ad agencies, always quick to pander to a trend, have slapped “low-carb” and “no-carb” labels on just about everything, right up there with the “gluten-free,” “antioxidant,” and “all natural” scams they've been running. And ill-informed sheeple have been eating it all up – or not, as the case may be. But recent surveys indicate the “carb-less” bandwagon may be slowing and pasta, that delicious staple of the Italian diet, may be making a comeback.
According to the Nielsen organization, dry pasta sales for the fifty-two week period ending April 2 were up almost three percent (2.9% to be exact) over the previous year. Nielsen also notes a 3.6% uptick in sales of “short” pastas like rigatoni and penne. Google chimes in in support of these figures with the release of their “2016 Food Trends” report. The report reveals that searches for pasta are up 26% from January 2015 to January 2016, with rigatoni, tortellini, penne, fusilli and linguine leading the charge up the comeback trail. Rigatoni in particular is seen to be “trending” across the U.S. in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami. Those same Google trends suggest that Americans are finally getting over the “low-carb” craze, even though interest in the fad diet does spike a bit in January, the month in which everybody's New Year's resolution includes dieting.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that pasta is a “health food.” There are a lot of studies, many of them not conducted by quacks and charlatans, that extoll the virtues of restricting carbohydrates for both weight loss and heart health. If you have a legitimate medical need to limit your carbs, by all means, go for it. The whole spectrum of issues regarding “good” carbs and “bad” carbs and “net carbs” and glycemic indexes and whatnot is far too complex to toss off in a blog post, so I'm not even going to go there. What I am going to do is tell you that pasta can be a healthy food when consumed in moderation. Unfortunately, moderation remains conspicuously absent among most Americans.
I frequent several restaurants owned by Italians. Not Italian-Americans, mind you, but “fresh off the boat” Italians. When I eat in these places, I ask for my pasta to be served “like your mama would serve it.” In other words, don't put a feed trough in front of me and fill it with overcooked pasta piled with meatballs and drowning in cloyingly sweet red sauce. I don't want enough spaghetti to take home and eat for the next three days. Just do like Mama would do and give me a portion of pasta, lightly dressed in a simple, flavorful sauce, that's about the size of my closed fist. I always question my friends in the business; “You don't eat like that yourself. Why do you serve such huge portions in your restaurant?” The answer is always the same; “If we served like we actually ate at home, people would just go to Olive Garden or someplace. We've got to give them what they expect.” This expectation comes to us thanks to the advertising media-inspired caricaturization of round, fat Italians gorging themselves on heaping platters of pasta while shouting “abbondanza!” and “that's Italian!” No, it's not.
Dry pasta is a staple of the Italian diet and of the “Mediterranean diet” as a whole, a diet that has long been touted as being one of the world's healthiest. I know I said I wasn't going to do this, but I lied. Pasta is very low on the glycemic index. Depending on the pasta type and preparation, it registers between 25 and 45 on the 100 point GI. Compared to, say, potatoes, which weigh in at around 80 or white bread at 75. Dry pasta is a “good” carb, it's “goodness” enhanced by how it is made and what it is made of.
Dry pasta, or pasta secca, is made of hard durum wheat. In fact, “durum” is Latin for “hard.” Durum is a tetraploid wheat, as opposed to hexaploid wheats like the hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat used to produce flour for bread and other baked goods. Genetically, durum has 28 chromosomes, while hexaploids have 42. Durum is an older species, a hybrid of wild grasses that have been processed and consumed since Roman times. When ground, durum produces semolina, a coarse yellow flour whose large, crystal-like particles are much higher in gluten. This high gluten content helps bond the natural starches and keeps them from leaching out as quickly. Therefore, they digest more slowly which, in turn, results in a slower release of sugar into the blood. And because dry pastas are manufactured by extrusion, the process creates a very dense, compact carbohydrate structure that further retards absorption and allows for a slower energy release in the body. Put a piece of white sandwich bread in your mouth and it will be converted to sugar almost before you finish chewing it. This isn't so with pasta, which more closely mimics the carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables. And that's it for the science.
Italians eat pasta every day. And yet, until the current generation, they have historically maintained obesity levels far lower than Americans and lower, even, than most other Europeans. Today's Italian kids, unfortunately, have strayed from the traditional diet and are more prone to obesity because of their exposure to American imports like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Gotta love it. America's number one export: fat. Still, even as pasta consumption trends downward as non-traditional cuisines play a larger role in the Italian diet, over half of Italians interviewed in a recent survey continue to eat pasta every day. Americans tend to eat pasta only once or twice a week. But even though overall pasta consumption in Italy is four times what it is in the United States, because Italians actually eat less pasta at a single sitting than do Americans, obesity levels in Italy remain lower than in the U.S.
Another key health difference between Italian and American pasta consumption involves the preparation. Besides piling plates with portions unheard of in Italy, Americans tend to load their pasta down with gallons of rich sauces and other ingredients uncommon on the Italian table. Take, for instance, chicken Alfredo. It's a ubiquitous restaurant dish in the United States that is unknown in Italy. Adding chicken, or any meat, really, to pasta is not done in Italy. And so-called “Alfredo sauce,” loaded with cream and calories, is a mystery to Italian cooks. Chow down on a plate of that stuff at Olive Garden and you're looking at 1440 calories, more than half of them from fat. You know what one of my favorite pasta dishes is? One that's popular all over Italy? Spaghetti aglio e olio; spaghetti with garlic and oil. You infuse a little olive oil with some fresh garlic, add a little salt, and mix it with about a cup of spaghetti. It's satisfying and delicious and it comes in at a less than 350 calories. Splurge a little and make it spaghetti cacio e pepe (spaghetti with cheese and pepper) and you up the calorie count to a little over 500. Spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti in tomato sauce) checks in at less than 400 calories per serving. That's how Italians can eat pasta every day and not get fat: they don't serve it on platters and they don't pile it with everything but the kitchen sink.
Pasta is not and never has been a dietary bad guy. When properly prepared and portioned, it can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. Millions of trim, healthy Italians in lines stretching back two thousand years provide the proof. Avoid places where servers wearing back braces carry your food out on platters. Stay out of “all you can eat” establishments and run away from “bottomless bowls” and “endless” servings of anything. When you order or prepare pasta, the pasta itself should be the “star” of the dish, not puddles of sauce and piles of fat-packing extra ingredients. To eat healthy, eat smart and eat well. And always remember per mangiare bene, mangiare italiano! (To eat well, eat Italian!)