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.”
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.
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.
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