A bowl of soba noodles

Pasta is a long-standing staple of the American diet: Thomas Jefferson brought a pasta maker back from France to the fledgling U.S. in 1789, according to the National Pasta Association.

But recent years have seen an explosion of pasta options beyond the traditional noodles made from refined wheat flour. Industry experts say that the “alternative” pasta market in the U.S. has grown from an estimated $75 to $100 million in 2010 to more than $250 million in 2018.

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That’s because consumers in search of lower carbs, more plant protein, or no gluten have been increasingly turning to pasta created from whole wheat, legumes, or buckwheat (soba, as it’s known in Japan).

All four options shown below, including traditional, pack around 200 calories and little fat per standard 2-ounce serving.* But they can differ in the vitamins, fiber, carbohydrates, and protein they supply—as well as how they taste. This breakdown can help you decide which pasta works best for you.

*Nutrition counts are based on 2 ounces of dry pasta (which translates to about a cup of cooked, depending on the shape).

Traditional

Made from semolina, a refined flour derived from a hard wheat called durum wheat that has more protein than some other types of flour. Despite its refined flour, traditional pasta has a low glycemic index that’s similar to that of whole-wheat and legume pastas. So it won’t spike blood sugar levels, especially if it’s cooked al dente (also recommended for best taste and texture).

CR Tip: Our tests show only minor differences in taste among the brands of traditional pasta, so buy whichever one you prefer—or the one that happens to be on sale.

  • Carbohydrates:     43 g
  • Fiber:     2 g
  • Protein:     7 g

Vitamins: Some brands may be enriched with B vitamins and iron—nutrients that are lost in the processing of the flour.

Whole-Wheat

Like traditional pasta, whole-wheat pasta is made from durum wheat flour, but from the whole kernel—endosperm, germ, and bran—and so contains more nutrients. Though some can be a bit gritty, the best whole-wheat pastas have a mild or nutty flavor, and chewy, springy texture.

CR Tip: Look for “whole wheat semolina” or “whole wheat durum flour” on the box. To get used to its nuttier flavor, try a 50-50 mix of whole wheat and traditional. Most pair nicely with olive oil or pesto-based toppings. Try Barilla Whole Grain Penne or De Cecco 100% Whole Wheat Penne Rigate, our taste testers advise.

  • Carbohydrates:     42 g
  • Fiber:     5 g
  • Protein:     8 g

Vitamins: Some B vitamins, including folate, and magnesium.

Legume or Bean

Depending on the brand, these can be made from just legume flour—from beans such as chickpeas, black beans, or lentils—or with a combination of legumes and other flours. These pastas can offer more fiber than other types.

CR Tip: Our tests show that the base ingredient makes a difference in flavor, with mild-tasting red lentil pasta coming closest to regular pasta—and so it adapts well to red sauce. (Try Ancient Harvest POW Red Lentil Rotini, our testers say.) Black bean pasta’s heartier taste works better with strong, spicy flavors. Chickpea pasta goes well with peas, olive oil, and Parmesan.

  • Carbohydrates:     32-36 g
  • Fiber:     3-15 g
  • Protein:     11-15 g

Vitamins: B vitamins, especially folate, and magnesium.

Soba

Popular in Japanese cuisine, these noodles are traditionally 100 percent buckwheat flour—which, despite its name, isn’t a form of wheat but is a type of grain—and so, like legume pastas, are gluten-free. But check labels, because we found that some brands are actually a mix of flours.

CR Tip: Offering similar nutrients to whole-wheat pasta, soba noodles typically have a firm, chewy texture and a nutty, earthy flavor. Hot or cold, they are well-suited to Asian-inspired dishes. Try them with chunks of tofu and scallions in a sesame oil/rice vinegar dressing, or in a soup.

  • Carbohydrates:     42 g
  • Fiber:     6 g
  • Protein:     8 g

Vitamins: Some B vitamins, including folate, and magnesium.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.