Non-flour pastas are having a moment: You can now eat pasta made from brown rice, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas and more. But are they really healthier than the real deal? Here's what nutrition experts have to say about which pasta alternatives are actually good for you.
Fresh vegetables used in the place of noodles are clearly the healthiest option. One popular way to make veggies like sweet potato, cucumber or zucchini look like noodles is to spiralize them, or use a machine to slice them into long, curly strands. You can then cook these so-called "zoodles," if you wish, by boiling or sautéeing them. Other stringy veggies like spaghetti squash naturally have a similar pasta-like look.
" From a nutritional standpoint, it’s terrific," says Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System . "It’s just a lot more work, and you will need equipment." Another downside is that fresh vegetable pastas can't be stored like regular pasta, and it goes bad more quickly. The biggest con of all: vegetables taste nothing like real noodles.
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Dried pastas made from chickpeas, lentils or black beans have more protein and fiber than regular pasta. That's because this type of pasta is made from beans. It can be made in different ways; sometimes the bean is ground into a flour and combined with thickening agents like tapioca or xanthan gum, and sometimes the bean powder is just combined with water.
One popular type of bean pasta, Banza, uses chickpeas in place of wheat. It has twice the protein and four times the fiber of regular pasta, with fewer carbs. It's also gluten free—but it's not always much lighter. A two-ounce serving of Banza is about 190 calories, while penne packs about 200.
Don't be fooled by pastas that say they contain vegetables in their ingredients, like green spinach pasta or red tomato pasta. Spinach pasta is just regular pasta made with a bit of spinach, often in powder or puree form. "It's basically fun and games with pasta," says Ayoob. "It has great eye appeal." Though some companies claim their veggie pastas contain a full serving of vegetables, Ayoob says it's no substitute for a real vegetable dish, since spinach pasta might not have all the nutrients you would otherwise expect from spinach.
Veggie or legume-based pastas are often gluten free, but quinoa is an especially popular choice since it doesn’t get mushy when it’s cooked. It tends to be higher in protein than other gluten-free varieties, and it contains high amounts of fiber, and iron. Another plus: it cooks quickly.
The healthfulness of any type of pasta, regular or alternative, depends largely on what you serve with it. "Pasta is a great vehicle for other food," says Ayoob. Usually, that means ground beef or heavy, creamy sauces. "Alfredo is one of the highest calorie pastas you can eat," says Ayoob. "It's what I call 'once a year' pasta." Instead, top yours with tomato-based sauces, vegetables or yesterday's leftovers.
You can also eat whole-wheat pasta, which is rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. Try serving it as a side dish, rather than a main, to cut down on portion sizes. "Pasta, including refined-flour pasta, is not a new food—it's been around long before the obesity crisis," Ayoob says. "Pasta is not a matter of yes or no, it’s a matter of how much and how often."