Is Hearts of Palm Pasta Good for You?
The noodles are low in carbs and calories. Find out if hearts of palm is a nutritious and sustainably sourced vegetable.
You’ve seen cauliflower transform from ho-hum vegetable into mouthwatering pizza and gnocchi? Today’s newest low-carb darling is hearts of palm pasta. Some say hearts of palm, also known as palmito, tastes like artichoke hearts or white asparagus. Like asparagus, it can be served crunchy or soft, and eaten raw or cooked.
This unassuming off-white vegetable is on fire. At Trader Joe’s, which has over 530 stores nationwide, hearts of palm is the number-one selling pasta out of around 30 different kinds made from more traditional ingredients.
CR’s experts took a look at the nutrition profile of hearts of palm pasta and cooked it up with various toppings to see how it really tastes and to help you decide if it deserves a place in your diet.
Hearts of Palm Pasta Nutrition
In addition to being low carb, hearts of palm pasta is also low in calories, which is music to our scales. One serving of hearts of palm pasta has 20 calories, 4 grams of carbs, and about 1 gram of protein. If you eat the whole package, which is easy, you’ve downed only 60 calories. Compare that to 1 cup of traditional wheat semolina pasta, which clocks in at 220 calories, 43 grams of carbs, and 8 grams of protein. Hearts of palm may not have the robust nutrient profile of some other veggies, like cauliflower, but it does give you decent amounts of iron, magnanese, and zinc, plus a little vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.
Hearts of palm grows commercially in the U.S., but much of what we eat comes from South America, and Ecuador is a top exporter.
Many types of palms produce a soft vegetable core that becomes what we know of as hearts of palm. To get to the edible part, the crown of the tree trunk is cut down—but not the entire tree. (Palm trees put out new shoots at the bottom that can be harvested later.) The crown is debarked to get to the inner core and then cut into different lengths or styles and typically processed by heating and adding salt.
Palm trees are found wild in the jungle, on the land of smallholder farmers, and now on large farms in order to meet demand. Karla Canavan, the World Wildlife Fund’s vice president of commodity trade and finance, works with the biggest brands in the world to help them build sustainable supply chains. Canavan said the explosive growth of hearts of palm reminds her of other worrisome trendy foods, such as avocados and quinoa. What Canavan has seen with those crops is a loss of local farming practices, including crop rotations. The next step when demand grows further are large mega-farms and extensive monocropping practices, “which can disrupt or destroy the biodiversity of an area, from the soil all the way up to large wildlife species," she says.
“I would be concerned,” she said of the future of hearts of palm. “Existing farms are close to communities with poverty and if people are being offered money, not just farmers but also owners of forestland or other habitat, you end up destroying the ecosystem,” she says. Canavan says that the sooner countries work to manage explosive growth the better.
Both Trader Joe’s and Palmini (a popular brand) source their hearts of palm sustainably, according to their websites, from farms in Ecuador. Neither party responded to CR’s requests for comments.
Cooking Hearts of Palm Pasta
Noodles made out of vegetables aren’t new—think spaghetti squash and zoodles. But one of the reasons why people are crazy for hearts of palm pasta is, they say, because it tastes more like the real thing. In fact, Palmini, one of the most familiar brands, calls the resemblance to pasta “extraordinary.”
Really? Four staffers from CR’s food team tasted Palmini and Trader Joe’s Hearts of Palm Pasta—both labeled linguini—five ways: plain, with marinara, with EVOO and parmesan, with pesto, and in a stir fry with Hoisin sauce.
Keating prepared the pastas, starting with rinsing and draining the noodles. For the plain, EVOO, and pesto versions, she warmed the noodles in a skillet in a little oil before tossing with the other ingredients. For the marinara and stir fry, she added them to the pan toward the end of cooking and heated them through for about 5 minutes.
The verdict: You could tell you weren’t eating pasta—neither product had pasta’s body, springiness, or smoothness. But both hearts of palm pastas were pretty good, and the one to choose depends on your taste.
Both products had a vegetal flavor when tasted plain, with TJ’s being slightly stronger. That flavor was muted once the noodles were mixed with the other ingredients, Keating says. Palmini’s more neutral taste worked better with pesto and in the stirfry, although all of the testers thought pesto wasn’t the best topping for either brand of hearts of palm pasta.
If you like your pasta al dente, Palmini is the better of the two. It had a firmer texture than TJ’s every way we tried it. The noodles were longer and that made them more pasta-like, too. “You can twirl this one on a fork,” one tester said.
Two of the testers preferred Palmini, but the other two thought the softer consistency of the TJ’s noodles was a plus. “It reminds me of angel hair pasta and it paired well with the marinara,” said one. And the other said the softer texture of TJ’s gave the dishes a richer taste.
The pastas’ price may also influence which one you prefer. Trader Joe’s cost $3.49 for 9 ounces; Palmini $5.29 for 12 ounces. That’s a bit hefty when you consider that you can buy a pound of a good Italian pasta for around $2 in the grocery store.
If you want to cut the carbs in your pasta dish, but aren’t sure you’re ready for a plate of veggie noodles, you can mix hearts of palm pasta half and half with regular pasta. Put the hearts of palm pasta in a colander and pour the cooked pasta over it to drain. That’s all it takes to warm up the hearts of palm. Then serve with your favorite sauce.
Want to get more creative? On Instagram, hearts of palm pasta can be found in Thai spring rolls, Panang chicken curry, shrimp pad Thai, beef lo mein, creamy alfredo and pasta puttanesca.