In the increasingly health-conscious age we live in, pasta isn’t just pasta anymore. The average grocery store now carries pasta with purported health benefits for any modified diet: whole-grain, gluten-free, fiber, protein, and veggie, to name a few. The latter is any sneaky mother or health-conscious adult's dream come true—eating pasta and calling it a vegetable. But is it too good to be true? We noodled over the latest research to find out.
Read the Label
To understand what’s really in your food, you need to take a close look at the label. According to registered dietitian Jessica Guarnieri, “veggie” pasta brands often have a very minimal amount of vegetables in them, and what is there doesn’t contribute a significant amount of fiber, vitamins, or minerals. When vegetables are processed into powders and then added to a dough, the result is usually just a change in color.
The exception is brands that are now claiming to offer a full serving of vegetables in each portion of pasta. In those cases, you need to consider the portion size you need to eat in order to get that one full veggie serving. Typically, a serving of pasta is 1 to 2 ounces. Barilla’s line of veggie pastas suggests a 3.5-ounce serving, while Ronzoni’s Garden Delight line suggests a 4-ounce serving. The discrepancy is the ratio of veggies to other ingredients in pasta (such as wheat flour and eggs), which changes in weight depending on how the vegetables were cooked. Ronzoni’s recipe uses dried vegetables, whereas Barilla’s recipe uses a veggie puree. You would need to eat a bigger serving of Ronzoni to benefit from the same amount of veggies you'd get in a serving of Barilla. In either case, though you may benefit from the added veggies in terms of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, you may still be eating the same amount of carbohydrates as you would eating traditional pasta—or perhaps even more.
Exploring Other Kinds of Pasta
There are other alternative pastas that may be a better choice for those who are looking to get more out of their spaghetti. Guarnieri first suggests pasta made with Jerusalem artichokes, like DeBoles brand, which does have fewer carbs and some additional fiber per serving.
If you’re willing to experience a more different texture, bean-based pasta—like Banza, which is made from chickpeas—are another good option. Banza has an impressive 8 grams of fiber and 14 grams of protein per serving (four times the fiber and twice the protein you'd get from traditional pasta). In addition to Banza, Guarnieri also recommends pasta made from black beans, edamame, and lentils for “a fiber and protein boost.” These boxes are typically smaller than a conventional box of pasta (8 ounces versus 16 ounces), so keep that in mind, if you’re cooking for a crowd. A study published in the Journal of Food Science did not find high-fiber or high-protein pasta to be more satiating than traditional pasta, but that may be because pasta's consistency is already pretty filling in the first place.
You Can Have Your Veggies and Eat Them, Too
If it’s pure vegetables you’re after, it’s worthwhile to invest in a sturdy spiralizer, which allows you to turn veggies such as zucchini, beets, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash into noodles. Guarnieri notes that most supermarkets now sell spiralized vegetables in their produce departments, so you can try them before getting your own tool. She recommends Inspiralized.com for recipes using basically any vegetable you can get your hands on. For a quick meal, it’s good to know that veggie noodles are quick to prepare and cook a lot faster than traditional pasta.
Once you choose your pasta, there are myriad possibilities for how to serve it—including ways of sneaking in even more veggies. Puree roasted butternut squash in a food processor or blender, and add to macaroni and cheese. Sauté chopped peppers and onions (or whatever else you have on hand), and add to a tomato sauce. This can be a great way to use up leftover side dishes from previous nights and reap the nutritional rewards.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with just eating plain old pasta. A common phrase among nutritionists is “Eat the rainbow,” meaning that your plate should be vibrant and varied. Our bodies need a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to function well, and in moderation, pasta can certainly be part of your meal plan. Buon appetito!