Q. What is the Mediterranean Diet and how does pasta fit in?
The Mediterranean Diet is characterized by abundant variety of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, breads, pasta, cereals, whole grains, potatoes, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Olive oil is the principal source of fat in this diet, and fish, especially fatty fish, is a mainstay. Dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt) and poultry are eaten in low to moderate amounts, and eggs (as many as four) often appear on the weekly menu. Red meat is eaten only on occasion – a few times a month – and wine, although consumed regularly is normally eaten with food and in modest amounts (no more than a small glass or two). Pasta meals are central to the Mediterranean Diet, not only because they are a tasty, inexpensive and easy meal to prepare but also because they are the perfect way to highlight and complement many of the other healthy foods in this diet.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the Mediterranean Diet reduces the risk of death from heart disease and cancer. Cereals, which include pasta, are an integral part of the Mediterranean Diet.
Q. Are grains bad for my memory? Should I cut them out of my diet?
A. With so many mixed messages out there about diet, it’s hard to know who to believe! There is no scientific evidence that eating grains will affect your memory. To help alleviate some of the confusion around wheat in the diet visit the GrainsforyourBrain.org website where you will find scientific research to answer any questions you might have.
Q. Is there added sugar in my pasta?
A. Pasta itself contains no added sugar, just complex carbohydrates. In fact, traditional dry pasta contains less than a gram of “natural” sugar per serving. Pasta also has a low Glycemic Index (GI) so it does not cause sugar in the blood to rise quickly. The GI measures how rapidly a carbohydrate triggers a rise in blood sugar – the higher the number, the greater the blood sugar response. Pasta has a GI of approximately 50 to 55, which is considered low. A low GI means a slower rate of digestion, which can help with appetite control.
Pasta can be a great foundation for a healthy, low sugar meal – you just have to watch what foods you pair it with! By pairing pasta with fresh vegetables, herbs and spices you can make a low-sugar meal that’s still full of flavor. Visit our Pasta Recipes for some pasta meals that are low in sugar.
Q. Why is pasta so popular?
A. According to the National Pasta Association (NPA), among the reasons cited for pasta’s popularity are its nutritional value, taste, convenience and economical value. Eighty-four percent of consumers consider pasta to be a healthy food and an important part of a well-balanced diet. In fact, 77 percent of the 1,003 Americans surveyed said they eat pasta at least once a week, while a third eat it three or more times a week.
What’s more, consumers who describe themselves as ‘health conscious’ are more likely than others to eat pasta three or more times a week. In addition, 44 percent of the health-conscious are eating more pasta today than they were five years ago.
Q. Who 'invented' pasta?
A. Popular legend has it that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy following his exploration of the Far East in the late 13th century; however, we can trace pasta back as far as the fourth century B.C., where an Etruscan tomb showed a group of natives making what appears to be pasta. The Chinese were making a noodle-like food as early as 3000 B.C. And Greek mythology suggests that the Greek God Vulcan invented a device that made strings of dough (the first spaghetti).
Pasta made its way to the New World through the English, who discovered it while touring Italy. Colonists brought to America the English practice of cooking noodles at least one half hour, then smothering them with cream sauce and cheese. But it was Thomas Jefferson who is credited with bringing the first “macaroni” machine to America in 1789 when he returned home after serving as ambassador to France.
The first industrial pasta factory in America was built in Brooklyn in 1848 by, of all people, a Frenchman, who spread his spaghetti strands on the roof to dry in the sunshine.
Q. How is pasta made?
American dry pasta is made with semolina, which is produced by grinding kernels of durum wheat. Sometimes other hard wheats are also used. The semolina is mixed with water until it forms a dough. If any other ingredients are being added to the pasta, such as eggs to make egg noodles, or spinach or tomato to make red or green colored pasta, those ingredients are added at this stage.
The dough is kneaded until it reaches the correct consistency, and then it is pushed, or extruded, through a die, a metal disc with holes in it. The size and shape of the holes in the die determine what the shape of the pasta will be. For instance, dies with round or oval holes will produce solid, long shapes of pasta, such as spaghetti. When the extruded pasta reaches the right length, it is cut with sharp blades that rotate beneath the die.
The pasta is then sent through large dryers, which circulate hot, moist air to slowly dry the pasta. Because different pasta shapes vary in degrees of thickness, they dry for different lengths of time. Most take 5 or 6 hours to dry.
The dried pasta is then packed in bags or boxes. Some of the more fragile pasta shapes, such as lasagna and manicotti, are often packed by hand to protect them from breaking.
Q. Is pasta fattening?
A. Pasta is not fattening. According to USDA’s Handbook 8-20, a 1/2 cup serving of cooked pasta (spaghetti) contains a mere 99 calories, less than half a gram of fat and less than 5 milligrams of sodium.
Pairing pasta with lean meats and protein rich vegetables create a healthy balanced meal. For more information on the nutrition of pasta, view our Diet & Nutrition Page.
Q. What are the health benefits of pasta?
A. Pasta is a perfect foundation for healthy, nutritious and satisfying meals: pasta is generally eaten with nutrient-dense food partners, such as fiber-filled vegetables and beans, heart healthy fish and monounsaturated oils, antioxidant-rich tomato sauce and protein-packed cheese, poultry and lean meats.
- SUSTAINED ENERGY: Carbohydrates like pasta provide glucose, the crucial fuel for your brain and muscles. Pasta is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which provide a slow release of energy. Unlike simple sugars that offer a quick, yet fleeting boost of energy, pasta helps sustain energy.
- LOW SODIUM & CHOLESTEROL-FREE: Pasta is very low in sodium and cholesterol-free. Per cup, enriched varieties provide a good source of several essential nutrients, including iron and several B-vitamins. Whole wheat pasta can provide up to 25% of daily fiber requirements in every one cup portion.
- FOLIC ACID: Enriched pasta is fortified with folic acid – essential for women of child-bearing age. FDA regulations require enriched grain products to contain this important vitamin. A serving of dry pasta supplies the equivalent of roughly 100 micrograms of folic acid, or 25% of the recommended daily intake.
- BALANCED DIET: Pasta is part of a well-balanced diet. Current dietary guidance calls for up to 65% of daily calories to come from carbohydrates, such as pasta.
- LOW GI: Pasta has a low Glycemic Index (GI) so it does not cause blood glucose levels to rise quickly. Blood glucose is sometimes referred to as blood “sugar”.
Q. Is gluten-free pasta better for me?
A. For individuals who have been diagnosed with a sensitivity to gluten, gluten-free pasta enables them to enjoy pasta as a regular part of their diet. Individuals who do not have gluten sensitivities derive no nutritional benefit from eating gluten-free pasta and will find that traditional enriched pastas provide good nutrient value, such as iron and B vitamins, including folic acid.
Q. Does all pasta contain gluten?
A. No. To please all tastes and dietary restrictions, there are numerous varieties of pasta available on the market today. Traditional pasta is typically made from durum semolina wheat or whole wheat. Alternative pastas are made from other grains such as brown rice, KAMUT®, spelt, and quinoa and are now widely available. Some of these alternative options such as KAMUT® and spelt are wheat-based, however gluten-free pasta is also on the market. The primary ingredient in gluten-free pasta is brown or white rice. Other ingredients in gluten-free pasta are quinoa, corn, potato, amaranth and buckwheat.
Q. Can I use gluten free pasta instead of enriched or whole grain in my recipes?
A. Gluten-free pasta is interchangeable in all recipes. The biggest difference you will find when replacing wheat pasta for gluten-free pasta is a difference in texture. Cooking times also vary and with gluten-free pasta in particular, so it is important not to overcook. Check out our healthy Pasta Fits recipes here, including this Curried Coconut Mussels over Rice Noodles, which was created especially for those following a gluten-free diet.
Q. How do you cook pasta perfectly every time?
1. Boil four to six quarts of water for one pound of dry pasta. (You can divide this recipe depending on how much pasta you are cooking.)
2. Add the pasta, stir, and return the water to a boil. Add salt to water, if desired.
3. Stir the pasta occasionally during cooking.
4. Follow the package directions for cooking times. If the pasta is to be used as part of a dish that requires further cooking, undercook the pasta by 1/3 of the cooking time specified on the package.
5. Taste the pasta to determine if it is done. Perfectly cooked pasta should be “al dente,” or firm to the bite, yet cooked through.
6. Drain pasta immediately and follow the rest of the recipe.
Q. How should I store pasta?
Store uncooked, dry pasta in your cupboard for up to one year. Keep in a cool, dry place. Follow the “first-in, first-out” rule: Use up packages you’ve had the longest before opening new packages.
Refrigerate cooked pasta in an airtight container for 3 to 5 days. You may add a little oil (1-2 tsp. for each pound of cooked pasta) to help keep it from sticking. Because cooked pasta will continue to absorb flavors and oils from sauces, store cooked pasta separately from sauce.
The best pasta shapes for freezing are those that are used in baked recipes, such as: lasagne, jumbo shells, ziti and manicotti. You’ll have better results if you prepare the recipe and freeze it before baking. To bake, thaw the dish to room temperature and bake as the recipe directs.
Q. How do I reheat pasta?
A. To reheat cooked pasta, portion out the amount you need and place in boiling water. For extra-easy draining, you can place the pasta in a stainless steel colander or strainer and then submerge in boiling water. Count 40 to 60 seconds of re-heating time for a four-ounce serving. Drain the pasta well, toss with sauce and serve immediately.
Pasta can also be reheated in the microwave oven. Reheat single servings on high for 45 seconds at a time, checking between intervals for doneness.
Q. How do I pair pasta shapes with appropriate sauces?
A. When pairing pasta with a sauce, remember that:
- Thin, delicate pastas, like angel hair or thin spaghetti, are better served with light, thin sauces.
- Thicker pasta shapes, like fettuccine, work well with heavier sauces.
- Pasta shapes with holes or ridges, like rotini or rigatoni, are perfect for chunkier sauces.
Q. What are the most popular pasta dishes?
A. According to the American Pasta Report, 40 percent of respondents say spaghetti is their personal favorite, followed by lasagna (12%), macaroni and cheese (6%), fettuccine (6%), linguine (3%), elbows (3%), pasta salad (3%), and angel hair (2%).