Photo: Ralph Smith

“Life is a combination of magic and pasta,” said the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. And a growing number of us looking to cut back on carbs, avoid gluten, and pump up our plant-protein intake are now turning to a new breed of noodles to perform those nutritional magic tricks.

Traditional pasta is made from semolina, a refined flour derived from durum wheat. But the new pastas are made from grains such as quinoa and legumes such as chickpeas and lentils. So-called alternative pastas­—which Whole Foods named one of the top 10 food trends for 2017—are perceived as better for you. “They intersect with virtually every healthy food trend in today’s marketplace,” says Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts University. So we tested 13 alternative pastas to see whether they meet consumer expectations for nutrition and taste. (Download a PDF of our alternative-pasta ratings.)

Noodle Nutrition

Americans trying to eat fewer carbs may be disappointed to discover that the carb counts of these new pastas aren’t always much lower than regular pasta. A 2-ounce serving of traditional pasta—½ cup dry, which cooks up to about 1 cup—has about 43 grams of carbs. The same-size serving of the alternative pastas we looked at had 32 to 46 grams. Nor are there big differences in calorie counts: 2 ounces of dry regular pasta has 210 calories; bean or quinoa noodles have 190 to 210 calories.

But there are other reasons to add alternative pastas to your culinary repertoire. Eating legumes and whole grains is linked to improved cardiovascular health, a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, and better weight control­—benefits that can be attributed in great part to their protein and fiber content.

Like the beans themselves, legume pastas are packed with plant protein. The ones we tested ranged from 11 to 15 grams per 2-ounce serving. “The bean pastas are a good way for people who don’t like beans in their natural state to get the benefits of legumes,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports dietitian.

Despite quinoa’s reputation for being a protein-rich grain, pastas made with it usually contain a blend of flours, sometimes including wheat. The ones we looked at had just 4 to 8 grams of protein per serving. (Regular pasta averages 7 grams.)

All of the alternative pastas we tested had enough fiber to be considered a good source of the nutrient (3 or more grams per serving). But some had 8 or more grams. “Getting more fiber has many health benefits,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. “But if you aren’t used to consuming large amounts in one sitting, it can cause bloating, cramping, and gas.”

To avoid these issues, he says, increase fiber intake gradually and drink plenty of water.

Pasta made from beans and grains like quinoa often falls squarely in the gluten-free category. That doesn’t make food more nutritious, but if you have a bona fide gluten intolerance, then the rise of alternative pastas may be a boon for you. Look for a logo that says “certified gluten-free,” because not all alternative pastas are made from gluten-free ingredients.

The Truth About the Taste

High-quality traditional pasta will have a firm texture when cooked (al dente, or “to the tooth”). It should be easy to bite into but have some resistance. As you chew it, the pasta should hold together, not crumble or melt away in your mouth. None of the bean or quinoa pastas met this standard, but the top-rated red-lentil pastas came the closest.

They were also tops in taste. None of the black-bean, chickpea, or quinoa pastas scored higher than Good for texture or taste. But the top-ranked brands in each category are still worth a try; the flavor and texture defects were less noticeable when the pastas were paired with the right topping.

Alternative pastas are pricier than regular pasta. For packages of 8 to 12 ounces, we paid $2.50 to $10 for the bean and quinoa pastas we tested, with our top picks in each category costing $2.50 to $5 per box. But because of their protein content, spending more on spaghetti may translate into savings at the supermarket, Cheatham says.