Is Pasta Healthy?

Nutritionists say this carb-rich staple is better for you than you might think

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Whole wheat pasta Anna_Shepulova . iStock-509409312

Here’s something to noodle over: Despite pasta being blamed for weight gain, it is not a diet derailer.

“Pasta doesn’t deserve its bad rap for being fattening,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a dietitian at Consumer Reports. Cutting pasta out of your diet isn’t the magical path to a slimmer you. And contrary to what you might believe, it does have nutritional value.

Regular dried pasta is made from refined flour. However, that flour is durum wheat (semolina), a hard-wheat variety that has a higher protein content than most other types.

The way the carbohydrates and protein in pasta are bound means that pasta has a lower glycemic index, or GI, meaning it is digested more slowly than other refined carbohydrates, according to researchers at the University of Sydney and the University of Toronto. Therefore, it might keep you full and release blood sugar (glucose) into your body more gradually, which could help with weight loss. Cold pasta is also a source of resistant starch, which may also help you lose weight.

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Pasta isn’t a source of empty calories, either. True, white pasta is a refined grain product because the germ and bran of the wheat—where much of the fiber and nutrients are—are removed. Still, it supplies 6 to 7 grams of protein and about 2 grams of fiber per cooked cup. Most brands are enriched with B vitamins, such as folic acid, and iron.

And there’s no evidence that cutting out pasta because it contains gluten will help improve your health or drop pounds. Unless you have celiac disease, there’s no reason to avoid gluten.

Now that you’ve gotten the real health scoop on pasta, follow these tips to make your meals healthier.

Use a Measuring Cup

The Nutrition Facts label on a pasta package lists 2 ounces as the serving size, which for most shapes is ½ cup. That’s for dry pasta, which will become about 1 cup when cooked. A cup of pasta may feel a little skimpy for dinner, so if you’re having it as a main course, a 1½- to 2-cup cooked portion is fine. Two cups of cooked spaghetti (loosely packed) has 392 calories, and 2 cups of penne has 338 calories.

Cook Pasta Al Dente

Italian for “to the tooth,” pasta cooked al dente is firm to the bite. It tastes better that way, and overcooked pasta has a higher GI, according to experts at the University of Sydney.

Consider these cookware options that did well in our tests below, or check CR’s complete cookware ratings to find the best pot for cooking your pasta.

Top It Right

You probably know that cream, cheese, and meat can significantly bump up pasta’s calorie and fat counts. But you don’t always want to be limited to just tomato sauce, which is lower in calories. You can round out a 1-cup serving of pasta and keep the calorie count low by mixing it with a cup of cooked vegetables. Drizzle with a little olive oil and toss with any vegetables you like. In the fall and winter, roasted root vegetables (such as beets, carrots, onions, and parsnips) or winter squashes are a great choice. Asparagus and peas are nice additions in the spring. And in the summer, you can’t go wrong with fresh tomatoes and basil. For a hit of protein, add chicken or beans, such as cannellini or chickpeas.

Check the Sauce

Jarred tomato sauces tend to be high in sodium and sugars, so be sure to compare nutrition facts labels on different brands. As CR’s recent pasta sauce test found, you don’t need lots of salt or sugars to make jarred sauces taste good. The two top-rated sauces are The Silver Palate Low Sodium Marinara and Victoria Low Sodium Marinara. (“Low sodium,” when used on food labels, is defined by the Food and Drug Administration as 140 mg or less of sodium per serving.) You can also make your own quick sauce using canned crushed or diced tomatoes, which usually contain very little or no sodium and no added sugars.

Try Pasta Alternatives

There are many more whole-grain and bean pastas on the market today than there were even just a few years ago. These products vary in nutrition from brand to brand, and there can be huge differences in taste and texture. The whole wheat pastas that scored best for taste in CR’s tests were Barilla Whole Grain Penne, De Cecco 100% Whole Wheat Penne Rigate, and Ronzoni Healthy Harvest 100% Whole Grain Penne Rigate. Barilla had the most fiber with 7 grams per 2 ounces of dry pasta.

Bean pastas are another option. Many brands are made only with bean flour (such as lentil or chickpea) but some are combined with quinoa or brown rice flour. The bean pastas in CR’s tests ranged from 11 to 14 grams of protein and 3 to 15 grams of fiber per 2-ounce dry pasta. Traditional red sauce may not be the best option for these pastas, so try these recipes from CR’s test kitchen.

Trisha Calvo

I've covered health and nutrition my entire career, so I know how to separate science from hype. Whether it's about food labels, sunscreen, or food safety, my goal is to deliver information that makes following a healthy lifestyle easier. Healthy cooking is a favorite hobby, and friends think I'm crazy, but I can happily spend hours grocery shopping. Follow me on Twitter. (@TrishaCalvo)