The pasta myth

Why do we shun noodles?

By
January 9, 2008

In September, the unthinkable happened: Italy had its first-ever national pasta strike.

Throughout Italy, thousands of sullen-faced Italians protested the rising price of their national dish by refusing to purchase pasta that day. But even the organizers of the strike realized that Italians could never go a day without actually eating pasta, so they gave it out for free.

But while pasta has the power to evoke such a passionate response in Italy, in North America there’s an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of pasta lovers.

Espoused by a number of bestselling diet-book authors — and backed up by talk-show hosts, blogs, and newspaper columnists — is the belief that regular white pasta is unhealthy and fattening.

Popular food writer Mark Bittman reinforced this belief in an October 17 New York Times article titled “Serving Pasta? Forget What You Learned.” Here’s part of what he said:

“Even setting aside the extreme recommendations of the Atkins diet, it’s widely agreed that highly refined grains — a group that includes the semolina flour from which the best-tasting dry pasta is made — do us little nutritional good. From the point of view of the body, there’s little difference between pasta and white bread (and, for that matter, biscotti); neither has much in the way of protein, vitamins, micronutrients, or fiber, and all are digested quickly and may ultimately be stored as fat.”
Pasta ain’t so bad for you after all.

Unfortunately, Bittman is helping perpetuate two common pasta myths. The first myth is that pasta digests very rapidly, causing a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels, which leads to the pasta being stored as fat. The second myth is that white pasta is almost devoid of nutrients.

Let’s start by looking at the first myth, that pasta is a disaster for blood-sugar levels.

When people talk about the adverse effect refined grain products can have on blood-sugar levels, they typically point to the glycemic index. The index is a ranking system developed in the early 1980s by Canadian scientists led by Dr. David Jenkins from the University of Toronto; it measures how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods raise blood-sugar levels. The higher the score, the faster the increase in blood-sugar levels.

However, unlike most refined grain foods, Italian-style pasta digests slowly because it’s made from a special hard type of wheat called durum wheat. Indeed, Jenkins pointed this fact out very publicly at a pasta conference held in Rome in February 2004, at the height of the low-carb craze in North America. “Pasta, with its dense compact structure, is a low glycemic-index food,” stated Jenkins, before declaring that “traditional carbohydrate foods are in. Pasta has been resurrected.”

Jenkins also noted that if other slowly digesting foods are eaten along with the pasta, the overall meal will have even less effect on blood sugars. And that’s a very important point to remember, because it’s not the individual parts of a meal that affect blood-sugar levels but the combined elements. That’s why in Asian cultures — in which relatively fast-digesting white rice is a staple —blood-sugar spikes aren’t a problem, because rice is traditionally eaten with slowly digesting foods like fish, beans (including tofu), poultry, plant oils, and fiber-rich vegetables.

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The second myth surrounding white pasta is that it has almost no nutritional value. Actually, a cup of cooked pasta — which contains only around 200 calories — provides your body with the same amount of dietary fiber as a slice of whole-grain bread, as well as more than 15 different health-promoting vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, potassium, thiamin, and niacin. Durum wheat is also one of the most protein-rich of all grains, and a cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein.

In addition, the carbohydrate in pasta is a very important macronutrient, supplying your body with glucose, which is the favored fuel for your muscles, brain, and central nervous system. Yes, glucose is what the glycemic index tracks, but pasta releases glucose more slowly than many other carbohydrate-rich foods, including rice, potatoes, and bread.

Another benefit to pasta is that not only is it a healthy and tasty food alone, it’s also a great vehicle for such appetizing and nutrient-dense foods as fresh seasonal vegetables, olive oil, and protein sources like seafood, poultry, and beans.

With all these benefits, it’s little wonder that pasta has been revered by generations of lean and healthy Italians. And with the popularity of the Mediterranean diet growing worldwide, perhaps pasta will regain the respect it deserves from American consumers too.

Ric Watson is the co-author of the book The MediterrAsian Way and the co-founder of MediterrAsian.com.

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1. by Emily H. on Jan 17, 2008 at 12:30 PM PST

Thank you for this! I’m so pleased to see an article sticking up for pasta for once. We eat pasta frequently and guiltlessly, and it kills me to know that so many people think of it as an indulgence. I’ve gotten the “well, you’re a runner, so you can eat pasta” argument, which is nonsense (though running certainly helps one to eat more of anything). Next time I hear it, I’m pointing the pasta skeptic to this story.

2. by anonymous on Jan 17, 2008 at 7:02 PM PST

.and yet, I lost 35 pounds when I quit eating it.

Maybe not a myth?

3. by ric_w on Jan 18, 2008 at 3:40 PM PST

Emily H: Glad you enjoyed the article! I was getting a little sick and tired of people dissing pasta (which is one of my favorite foods) under false pretences, so I just wanted to point out the facts.

Anonymous: Like any food, if it’s eaten in excess pasta will cause weight gain. Especially if it’s eaten the typical calorie-laden American way: topped with lots of meaty, creamy and cheesy sauces.

But generations of lean and healthy Italians prove that pasta can be eaten regularly without any problems, if it’s eaten the traditional way, and in moderation. Indeed, as I explained in the article, far from causing any problems pasta provides your body with a number of health-giving nutrients, it’s a good source of slowly-digesting carbs, and it’s a great vehicle for such appetizing and nutrient-dense foods as fresh seasonal vegetables, olive oil, and protein sources like seafood, poultry, and beans.

And speaking from personal experience, I’ve regularly been eating pasta for many years and I’ve never been leaner or healthier.

4. by anonymous on Jan 20, 2008 at 9:57 AM PST

.and yet, because I don’t want to gain the 35 pounds back, I will not eat pasta anyway. Speaking from personal experience, pasta in moderation does not work for me.

5. by guioconnor on Jan 20, 2008 at 1:42 PM PST

Beyond all the technical evidence provided on your post, the facts speak for themselves. Italians have pasta every single day and they are mostly slim and healthy. Despite any research, reality shows that pasta can’t be harmful at all.

In fact, I moved to Italy, I started to eat a lot more of pasta that we did before and despite of it (or because of it) I lost extra weight and no bad side-effects showed up. So really evidence speaks for itself, is ridiculous to fight against reality, no matter how serious research may look.

6. by anonymous on Jan 20, 2008 at 4:31 PM PST

I must be the only person in the whole world and Italy that gains weight eating pasta, so again, I will not eat it in a box, I will not eat it with a fox. No statistic in the world will convince me that I want those 35 lbs back no matter how many skinny Italians there are. And it seems that (gasp!) eveyone... might... be.... (dare I say it?) ...uh, different? Ya think?

Please, please! Enjoy my portion. I heartily agree that it is ridiculous to fight against reality. ‘Scuse me whilst I go enjoy my calorie-laden meaty, creamy, and cheesy sauces atop a heaping pile of broccoli. Mmmmmmm.....

7. by slobhan on Jan 20, 2008 at 4:38 PM PST

When I want to cut a couple pounds, I definitely cut back on pasta and focus on veggie-rich meals (like in Ivy Manning’s Mediterranean-inspired diet in her Eating well article 1/14). But it’s nice to remind folks that pasta’s not the enemy!

8. by Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor on Jan 21, 2008 at 12:53 AM PST

I understand your point anonymous, what I don’t share as a philosophy is why to have two diets, one unhealthy for pleasure and one not-so-pleasurable for health, once you could have only one with both characteristics.

With a balanced AND tasty diet you could live in diet forever and loving it.

Pasta sure doesn’t make you slim or healthy by itself, its a balanced life and diet that does it, what I think Ric is saying, and I agree, is that pasta has a place in such a lifestyle, while, for instance tons of read meat doesn’t.

9. by Holly on Jan 28, 2008 at 6:52 AM PST

I don’t believe that red meat is bad for you. Personally I’m one of the people who believes that a so-called “balanced” diet, as outlined by the U.S. government, is far too heavy in starches. Everybody’s being very PC and saying “in moderation” but we all disagree about what “moderation” is. Some people have a very low tolerance for processed carbs (and I’m sorry, but that’s what pasta is, regardless of what wheat went into it). I’d far rather eat, say, a couple of Italian sausages and a nice salad than a plate of what amounts to wall paste. (Note the similar etimology of the words, “paste” as in “glue,” and “paste” as in “pasta”? That’s not an accident.) By all means, eat the pasta if you enjoy it and can tolerate it, but let’s not imply that everyone would benefit from eating it.

10. by The Short(dis)Order cook on Feb 13, 2008 at 2:28 PM PST

I come from an Italian family and pasta has been a staple in our lives. Despite the doomsayers, there is little in the way of obesity or diabetes. People live a very long time.

Pasta is like anything else, if you load up your plate, you will likely gain weight. That’s as true for a porterhouse as it is for spaghetti.

11. by tempting fate on Apr 10, 2008 at 2:07 AM PDT

Amazing how intensely this topic gets everyone talking!I don’t eat a lot of refined carbs and don’t feel like I’m missing out, but a little bowl of pasta every once in a while really hits the spot. Yep, I too lost heaps of weight when I went off the white flour but of course you can pretty much eat anything you crave if you follow the old fashioned no-miracle-healthy-sure-fire-weight-loss-and-health-regime of lots of water lots of fruit and veggies, lots of widely varied protein, lots of herbs and spices for flavour and lots of exercise. Carbs or no carbs. It’s good to know the pasta research, more variety is always great.

12. by anonymous on Aug 27, 2008 at 9:52 PM PDT

I think there will be a backlash on the low carbohydrate diets eventually. People have been living on grains for thousands of years and our bodies have adjusted to it. Low fat, low simple sugar diets are the safest. Animals used to get more exercise and sugar doesn’t really exist in nature. The Mediterranean diet was recently tested against low carb and did almost as well and most dietitians agree is safer for the long term.

13. by Bern on Oct 16, 2011 at 2:55 PM PDT

I’m surprised neither the article nor the comments mention cooking time! This actually makes a pretty big difference in how easy it is for your body to break down the pasta. Always go for al dente, meaning the pasta should not be uniformly soft but rather get firmer towards the center. Usually this is the lower time in the range given on the package (i.e., 9–12 min).

And of course the sauce makes a huge difference in how healthy your pasta dish is. You can eat whole-wheat spaghetti or steamed broccoli but if you smother it in creamy alfredo sauce then you’re completely missing the point. Before you blame pasta in general, check the labels of the stuff you buy. There is “pasta” and there is pasta…just like there is “sauce” and sauce.

Another important factor in your diet is your eating habits, i.e., how often you eat and how much. You should be eating about 6 times a day. Not the traditional “3 squared meals”.

I♥Pasta

14. by Caroline Cummins on Nov 2, 2011 at 12:11 PM PDT

Bern: Actually, the latest scientific suggestion is that three square meals a day is better than six small meals. But of course, you should eat in a manner that feels appropriate to you.

15. by Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor on Nov 2, 2011 at 12:59 PM PDT

To me this says it all:

“Caveats: The study followed a group of men only, no women. And as Reuters noted, the National Pork Board and the American Egg Board funded the study, so it’s not surprising that the study’s authors recommended that dieters should consume lean pork and eggs.”

16. by anonymous on Jan 18, 2012 at 6:35 AM PST

The problem with a lot of English speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland, USA, Australia, South Africa etc., is that a lot of people from those places say that pasta, bread, olive oil, dairy, nuts and everything is bad for you.
If you go to non-English speaking countries, you will find that people will eat a wide range of food without complaining about getting “wheat belly” or “water retention” and are slimmer and healthier than Brits, Irish, Americans, Canadians, Australians and other Anglophone countries.

17. by anonymous on May 2, 2012 at 5:21 PM PDT

I ate pasta while I was on my diet and lost forty pounds. I ate pasta before that, too. The difference?
I stopped using so many meaty sauces. Before, I usually mixed in liberal amounts of cheesy sauces, as well as plenty of butter. Now, I either eat it plain, with some olive oil or, if I’m feeling really peckish, some salsa (a very healthy condiment). The funny thing is that, I actually like the taste of the latter better. Which is key to maintaining a successful diet.

18. by anonymous on May 7, 2014 at 1:43 PM PDT

THANK YOU from a passionate italian pasta eater!

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