Should I Buy Whole Grain Pasta?

by | Jan 19, 2009
Pasta

Pasta

Is whole grain pasta really better for you than regular pasta? Recently I featured pasta puttanesca greened up with a little kale in the sauce. When one reader made this recipe at home, he opted to use whole grain pasta instead (I used a regular rigatoni).

But if I care about health so much why didn’t I use whole grain pasta originally?

You probably already know that I health-heartedly support the regular consumption of whole grains. But I also hold that there is a huge difference between intact grains and processed whole grains. So yes, brown rice is better for you than white rice, but pasta is different.

Noodles are made of dough and are therefore processed no matter what. For this reason they will never be a pinnacle of health food, but that does not mean that there can’t be a place for them in your diet. Italians eat pasta almost every day, and most of them are healthier than us. The important thing to think about when you are eating pasta–any pasta–is quantity.

So to answer the question, is whole grain pasta better than regular pasta? Maybe a little. But because I do not eat pasta very often, and because when I do eat pasta I eat a normal (aka small) portion, I always buy what I think will taste the best with meal. And for me, that is usually handmade fresh pasta (the soft refrigerated kind), not the whole grain stuff.

If you do not mind the taste of whole grain pasta, go ahead and buy it. It might be slightly better for you than the other kind. But the impact of whole grain pasta on your overall health is really small, so this is not a question to get hung up on.

Want a healthier Italian meal? Add more vegetables.

What is your opinion on pasta and health?

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43 Responses to “Should I Buy Whole Grain Pasta?”

  1. Chinasaur says:

    I feel like whole grain pasta /can/ be better tasting, especially with some pestos.

  2. Matt Shook says:

    Very interesting post…I had no idea my pasta selection for the puttanesca would expand to another topic! Kind of neat feeling…

    I think of pasta as a “special occasion food”…I believe it was Michael Pollan who said that a lot of unhealthy Americans are eating “special occasion foods” for every meal. It was the night before my birthday so I decided to cook up my favorite pasta dish (which I had previously only enjoyed in restaurants)…as it turns out, I was in a Trader Joe’s and had to decide between the organic whole grain and the regular stuff…so I selected it because it was organic as well as whole grain. Had I put a lot of thought into it ahead of time, I would have gone to Pastaworks…which has by far the best fresh daily-made pasta in all of Oregon. So yes, I completely agree that if you’re going to take the time to prepare a really superb pasta dish, the fresher the better…regardless if it’s whole grain or not.

    On a side note…I used to really dislike whole grain pasta. I believe adding olive oil and salt to the boiling water, cooking it on the longer side, and then adding more olive oil to the strained pasta afterwords really makes a huge difference.

  3. Matt Shook says:

    I forgot to add that I almost always include slightly steamed broccoli to my pasta dishes…I believe it’s an excellent compliment to marinara.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Cool pic; and I agree, pasta is always better if you throw in some freshly blanched sweetpeas, broccoli, or some other crispy crunchy green. I find in the end I keep adding the green, so that it is more like I am adding the pasta to the green stuff and not vice versa.

  5. Michelle says:

    Seriously good point about adding veggies. Though given the option of regular pasta or slightly more healthy whole wheat pasta, my feeling is why not go for the healthier option? I guess I’ve never been put off by the taste of the whole grain kind.

  6. Darya Pino says:

    @chinasaur @michelle

    Thanks for coming out to defend the taste of whole grain pasta. I agree it’s not that bad. However, it is the fine-dining spoiled foodie in me (a mixed blessing) that always keeps me going back to the fresh stuff.

    For me the thing about whole grain pasta is not that it is bad so much as it is different from what I want when eating Italian food.

    But I know plenty of people who love it, and like I say in the post it is probably a better option if the taste/texture doesn’t bother you.

  7. Darya Pino says:

    @Matt

    Special readers deserve special shout outs ;)

    I figured that your choice of pasta had more to do with its organic-ness than its wheaty-ness, but it was still a good springboard for discussion.

    Thanks for the tip on how to improve the taste and texture of the whole grain kind. For me, food is inseparable from taste and texture, healthy or not.

  8. Katie says:

    Definitely a cool picture, it looks like everythings floating! Personally, its not the taste of whole grain pasta, its the texture that I don’t really like. Especially when I know that the fresh stuff is out there, which is just a whole ‘nother experience. I wonder if I just need to boil the whole grain stuff longer or something….?

  9. Matt Shook says:

    @Darya

    Thanks for the compliment…sometimes I think I may post too often & too much (blog hog). This blog has been a great resource/outlet for me…

    You're absolutely right about taste & texture…it may be sacrilegious for a vegan/vegetarian to admit this, but I cannot bring myself to enjoy mushrooms…no matter how hard I try to like them. Even if they're completely organic and picked out of my backyard and prepared wonderfully, it's a massive taste/texture issue for me.

    To jump back to the topic at hand, I have found smooth whole grain penne pasta (no ridges like in the picture) has a texture that more closely resembles traditional pasta…when cooked properly, of course. But I think most people here are convinced fresh is the way to go…

    @Katie

    See the last paragraph of my first post regarding a method for preparing whole grain pasta I that have found to be useful.

  10. Mike says:

    In college my friends always used to make fun when I would cook up some veggies with pasta. If they could only read this post now, I would rub it in their faces! (that its good to have veggies with pasta). Strange though, I never really cook it anymore….I started feeling that pasta is just too processed. I bet a kid couldn’t even tell you what its made out of, its not much better than white bread to me.

  11. Jed Wolpaw says:

    What about bread? How do I know if I’m getting super healthy whole grain bread or just processed whole grain bread?

  12. Darya Pino says:

    @jed

    Great question! This is probably worthy of its own post, but I will address it here for now.

    You are absolutely right to question the health value of bread because, as I’m sure you can tell, even the “whole grain” stuff is pretty processed.

    There are a few breads that are actually made from whole, intact grains, but most people would consider these unacceptable for most bread uses. These tend to be called “European style” breads (go figure) and are super dense, usually in small loaves. Trader Joe’s has a some that are pretty good.

    Nature’s Path makes something called Manna bread that is a unleavened, pressed whole grain loaf. I have found it in the refrigerated section of Whole Foods. It is delicious, but the consistency is more like a bran muffin than bread. It doesn’t have preservatives, so you have to eat it relatively quickly.

    So you can see that these “breads” are a good source of whole grains but not really “bread” in the traditional sense.

    How do I deal with bread?

    I don’t usually bother with the whole grain kind unless I’m craving it or have a specific use for it. I buy artisan style french bread from Acme. It is $2 for a baguette and it is divine. I cut it up and freeze what I can’t eat. It reheats well in the oven.

    But as you might imagine, I do not eat bread very often. I love it with eggs, some soups, with avocado, etc. But I only eat small pieces (try the Pan Epi loaf for perfect serving sizes) and not more than 2-3 times per week.

    My main sources of whole grains are breakfast cereals (hot and cold) and brown rice, barley, quinoa, etc. with dinner.

    I consider bread a “special occasion” food.

    • kvictoria says:

      I think this post is a bit misleading. It comes up quite high if you search “whole grain pasta”, and says that because of the processing (grinding into flour) of the wheat grain the health benefits are lost or greatly reduced. Why is this? The additional nutrients, protein and fibre are all still there. And the same would need to follow for any food made from flour, bread particularly. Research establishments such as the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research Centre, University of Minnesota, British Nutrition Foundation, World Cancer Research Fund are all clear on the health benefits of whole grain foods, and all include bread and pasta in this.

  13. Healthyliving says:

    Another similar question to the bread one: I was making cookies tonight (oops…. i guess this is a confession too!) and the recipe called for flour- I assume it meant regular white baking flour. But all I had in my pantry was the Trader Joe’s whole wheat stuff. I had no alternative and had to just use it, but I wondered what your thoughts were on the benefits of using whole wheat flour- especially considering the possible change in baking quality it will have- should we use it?

  14. Darya Pino says:

    @HealthyLiving

    Honestly, I would never adulterate cookies with wheat flour. You’re already eating the sugar, you may as well enjoy your treat.

    My mom used to make cookies with whole grain flour. Cookies have to be pretty bad for kids not to want to eat them….

  15. julie says:

    I use whole grain pasta and whole grain bread for exactly the reason that I don’t like it that much, thus am much less likely to overeat it. I still throw in lots of vegetables.

    • Darya Pino says:

      LOL, I hadn’t considered that reason. Clever ;)

      • Lindsey says:

        That does make sense but I have to say I love the nutty, heartier taste of the whole wheat pasta and the extra fiber. What do you think would be the best type of pasta? Brown rice? Sprouted grain? I too don’t eat it often but try my best to squeeze in as many nutrients as I can when I’m cooking.

      • Darya Pino says:

        Honestly I think the best one to eat is the one you like the best. For me that depends a lot on what I am pairing it with. Different shapes, sizes and flavors are what pasta is all about :)

  16. Justin says:

    I do not agree with you on wholegrain pasta being “slightly” healthier for you than regular. Simply look at the nutritional label. Wholegrain has twice the amount of fiber per serving, as well as a gram or two of mono/poly unsaturated fats.

  17. Kurt says:

    The impact of many things we eat is very small, but it all adds up.

  18. Tina says:

    Hi! I stumbled across this while doing research for an article I’ll be writing soon, so I thought I’d comment. :-)
    I live in Italy and I eat pasta every day – sometimes twice in one day! I am slim as well. (Having become slim upon moving to Italy – with all that pasta).
    But, pasta is made of semola flour, which has more protein and less gluten than just regular flour – so it’s not to be dismissed as just a white carb.
    Here in Italy though, Barilla recently released a line of pasta made of other things like chickpea flour combined with spelt for example. Mediterraneans love their different grains, but nobody eats “whole wheat pasta” here that I know of.
    In the end, I say eat what you like. :-)

  19. Anita says:

    Justin,
    I think it’s not the fiber we’re looking for, it’s the nutrients, which can be added in the homemade stock, good oils, fresh herbs & vegetables in the sauce. (If you believe fiber is a health food, you might be interested to read “Fiber Menace” by Konstantin Monastyrsky, which will tell you otherwise, & will challenge those beliefs.) I believe pasta is just a vessel to hold all the nutrient-dense goodies in there, rather like bread is to butter:’)
    As Darya stated, rice is much different to pasta.
    I agree, my choice is freshly-made pasta over organic or wholewheat, anytime.

  20. JB says:

    Great post, Darya. I think you might also find this article on Culinate about pasta very interesting. It’s called “The Pasta Myth”: http://www.culinate.com/articles/opinion/pasta_myth

    • Lax says:

      Great post and discussion, too. Thanks for the link above. That site is very informative.
      This is my first time here, a friend forwarded this site’s link to me.

  21. Another Halocene Human says:

    I’m sorry. I have to question the “Italians are healthier than us.” Italians have a very high incidence of Celiac disease. This should not be surprising given their ancestry as recent wheat-eaters and their high consumption of even more novel unleavened pasta products.

    Pasta may be “processed”, but not in a way that is beneficial to human health. Fresh ground sourdough bread that has been leavened for 24 hours has had almost all of the phytate (mineral chellator that can lead to anemia in wheat-eaters) and gluten (the gut–and eventually organ–destroyer in Celiacs) consumed by the culture. But pasta is only milled, kept more or less sterile, and then formed into paste. It is a gluten-intolerant’s nightmare.

    Whole wheat pasta not only tastes bad, it’s probably even worse for you because it contains all of the wheat’s anti-nutrients, the plants “don’t eat my next generation” chemicals which are meant to discourage predators, such as ourselves, completely intact. If whole wheat pasta seems hard to digest, there’s a reason!

    In a study performed in the 70′s, it was found that giving heart attack patients a daily dose of wheat bran in addition to their regular diet actually RAISED all-cause CHD mortality.

    I agree that fiber helps control appetite, but please find a different source of it!

    On a personal note, I absolutely trashed my guts eating whole-wheat products. I now can’t eat wheat at all (awful GERD symptoms) which means missing out on a lot of tasty foods. I get my carbs from tubers like sweet potato, potato, yucca, turnips, etc. Don’t be an idiot. Eat properly leavened bread–12 to 24 hours–and don’t do that silly artisan baker thing of coating it in a bitter rime of raw flour.

  22. I love this entire discussion on whole wheat pasta because it is a question that I get on a regular basis. I have never liked whole wheat pasta and would much rather enjoy a pasta meal with the regular pasta. It always struck me that I never saw or heard of any real Italians eating whole wheat pasta and so I never jumped on this trend, because that is what it seems to me to be. I love your advice of incorporating the whole grains and fiber into the diet in bigger ways through other whole food sources! Thank you for validating my thoughts on this topic!

  23. James says:

    I’ll never understand why people dislike whole wheat. To me it honestly tastes better. I absolutely adore the nutty sweetness and dense, chewy texture of the stuff. After years of enjoying whole wheat breads, pastas, and yep, cookies and cakes, bleached flour just makes foods taste and feel like Elmer’s glue to my palate. Perhaps nostalgia and ingrained preferences are to blame here? Or perhaps people are just used to the faster blood sugar spike white flour delivers? I’ll always choose whole wheat if I have the option, and not just because it’s better for me.

    • Darya Pino says:

      That’s awesome, and like I said pleasure is the best reason to eat it. I like whole grain breads too, and agree that highly refined flour is generally nasty. But the semolina flour used in real Italian pasta is amazing, and having lived there it’s hard for me to taste wheat pasta and think it’s just as good. The texture doesn’t work for me, especially for the silky cream-based sauces.

    • MsB says:

      Totally agree. I love the $6/lb Italian semolina pasta but for our workday pasta meals, whole wheat pasta tastes better and we don’t eat as much and as fast because it feels more substantial.

  24. Katerina says:

    Wow Disagree lol Im in Italy I moved here 8 years ago from the United States yes Italians are healthy enough culture but many are over weight I have been told its happen recsently where they are haveing more and more weight issues high cholesterol BP and all else tha fallows being over weight..when I arrived here I weighed about 15lbs after eating their diet of pasta twice a day and fallowing their exact pattern I gained about 50 lbs in 5 years LOL My normal BP sky rocketed my cholesterol bad bad bad lol so i changed to the Intregrale which is whole grain pasta and took it down from 70 to 80 carbs a meal to 9 carbs!!!!!!! Yes thats the difference!!!! Ive lost every Lb I gained inside of 6 months changeing that pasta LOL so No this article is absolutly wrong Im so sorry but it is wrong!!!! Now If you eat pasta once a year and its not often I can see somebody saying O who cares but if you love pasta This is the answer!!!!!!!! and its healthy folks just make sauces that have vegis!!!!!!

  25. Bob Mounger says:

    “But I also hold that there is a huge difference between intact grains and processed whole grains”
    “But the impact of whole grain pasta on your overall health is really small,”

    Where’s the data? I have divertiucular disease & have to consume >30g of dietary fiber daily, so I am kind of “hung up” on numbers. Have you got any data that shows a) that the dietary fiber in cooked whole grain pasta is not what is indicated by the package labelling or b) that whole grain processed fiber is not effective in producing the same benefits as say, raw whole wheat berries?

    If the answer to either is yes, I would encourage you to notify the food & drug administration, & the local media.

  26. What’s your take on sprouted grain pastas? Fresh or dried, I prefer not just whole grain, but sprouted.

  27. SKS says:

    I am curious about Farro pasta. I have been making my own and from what I researched, this is much more nutritious than white or whole wheat pasta. Farro is full of vitamins and protein.

  28. John Kinsworthy says:

    Right now, all I am is confused. I’m with Bob Mounger’s comment on “where’s the data?” but it looks like the thread has pretty much died out. Great comments but I see some contradictory information and comments that need some sort of response (better in a separate knock-down, drag-out with some data concerning whole grains, seminola, sprouted, bread and pasta, etc.). I’m an older single father of two trying to keep carbs down for myself (my system seems to be super-efficient at converting carbs to fat based on my triglyceride readings over the decades ;-) and my kids (pre-teen with some weight issues while the teen can ingest whole isles of food without much change), but still keep some level/type of bread and pasta on the menu. They seem to have inherited from both sides a love of bread (in most any form or type) and pasta (for them, first choice is macaroni w/melted cheese which has been pretty much deleted from the menu and then spag or penne, served rarely). Links with further info on opinions appreciated. BTW I haven’t yet had the time to explore everything on this site so I’m sure I’ll find some really good info to use. Thanks for all this! It’s great and greatly appreciated.

  29. Mangolini says:

    The fact that you say Italians eat pasta almost every day, shows how little you know outside of your own American bubble.

  30. what what says:

    sauteed rapini or collard greens on the side is da bomb

  31. what what says:

    actually, forget on the side:

    sauteed rapini, collards, red and orange peppers, onions and garlic simmered in plain all purpose tomato sauce or blended whole tomatoes with a bit of tomato paste is da mega bomb!!!!!!

  32. Roda says:

    Is organic italian pasta better then non – organic whole grain pasta ?

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