Cooking with Lou

Healthy Pasta Substitutes

– Posted in: Cooking Tips

Healthy Pasta Substitutes

We’ve all heard that pasta has too many carbs and is full of gluten and that we should avoid it. Well, I’m here to tell you that I just can’t exist without having pasta. So, what to do? Find a healthy pasta substitute that still tastes like a regular old noodle. Easier said than done.

According to WebMD  we should get more good carbohydrates into our diets. What are good carbs? They are carbs that also include fiber. These good carbs are found in grains, fruits, and vegetables. We should actually get 45% to 65%  of our calories from these types of carbohydrates. The function of carbohydrates in our bodies is primarily to provide energy to our muscles and fuel for the central nervous system. Carbs also help with metabolizing fat, so we really do need to get carbohydrates into our healthy eating plan or who knows what will happen to the fat grams we consume. (I have a good idea….and it’s not pretty!) Carbs are converted into sugars in order to be used by the body and we all know that unused sugar gets converted to more fat.  So again that word “balance” comes into play. But for now…lets just talk about pasta.

All pasta is made from a grain. Grains are eitherPasta Substitutes whole grains or refined grains. Whole wheat pasta is made from the whole grain and maintains the quality dietary fiber. Other pastas are mostly made from refined grains, which means that a good bit of the fiber has been processed out of the flour.  Pasta made from quinoa also contains rice and/or corn flour. The various types of grain give it a texture most like traditional pasta. Pasta made from just rice flour (brown or white) can get very sticky and doesn’t have the flavor or texture that says “pasta”.

I did some checking on the nutritional value various types of pasta products. You decide which ones are healthy pasta substitutes.

Type of Pasta Calories Carbohydrates Fiber Protein
100% Semolina 200 42 2 7
Quinoa 205 46 4 4
White Rice 185 38 0 3
Brown Rice 210 44 3 4
Whole Wheat 200 41 6 7
Corn and Rice 200 45 1 3
Quest (Brand Name) 10 0 3 0

I tried all of the pasta types listed above. Below is a review of each one.

  • 100% semolina (traditional pasta) This is the pasta we all love, full of carbs and gluten. (I’m not gluten phobic, but I have found that reducing the amount of gluten I have in my overall diet has decreased the occurrence of reflux at night.). There is some fiber and protein, but less than the whole wheat. Sadly, it is what we all want our pasta to taste like
  • Whole Wheatt: Whole wheat  is “healthier” than all refined flour pasta. It has more fiber and protein, but it cooks differently than regular pasta. Even though the package said to cook it the same amount of time as regular pasta, but it hadn’t even gotten to al dente. Letting it cook to just al dente still left an uncooked flavor.  So, I tried letting it cook longer until it was completely cooked (just beyond al dente), but not overcooked.  It still didn’t have the texture of traditional pasta. Even cooking completely, it still broke easily and wasn’t as elastic as regular pasta. Flavor was fine, a nuttier taste than semolina pasta. However, if you’re looking for a gluten free pasta, this is not a choice.
  • White Rice: White rice noodles are Japanese rice noodles. They are great with Asian food, but when I tried serving them with spaghetti sauce……the family rebelled. White rice noodles are elastic which gives them a great texture, but they really lack flavor. There are varieties that include white rice plus vegetables such as carrots or sweet potatoes. I haven’t tried these yet, but I’m guessing that the added vegies will add more flavor and color. The fact that is keeping me from trying white rice plus other ingredients is the primary ingredient is white rice and like white flour, I avoid white rice.
  • Quinoa: Ok, this turned out to be an outstanding choice. Flavor, texture, cooking method…..just like regular pasta.  My family could not tell the difference between pasta made from quinoa and traditional semolina flour. While quinoa still has 46 grams of  carbohydrates, it also has 4 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein, and no gluten. Most of the quinoa pasta that I tried used corn flour in addition to the quinoa flour. I am guessing that the corn flour is what gave the pasta the texture that I was looking for.
  • Quest Pasta (available at GNC and online).  This option sounded like a really good alternative…only 3 carbs and those were from dietary fiber. Quest is the brand name and it is made from glucomanan derived from the Konjac root. Konjac root will make you feel full without adding calories. It is packaged in alkaline water. As the chart above indicates it does have 3 grams of fiber (less than any of the other pastas listed).  However the low calorie count and the little bit of fiber are the only redeeming qualities. The water that the “pasta” is packaged in smells like rotting seaweed. Rinsing the noodles off does help with that problem, but even a lot of rinsing did not take away the smell or residual flavor. However, the texture of these noodles was extremely elastic (reminded me of tough calamari), The noodles had absolutely no taste except for the remnants of the alkaline water. I used them in a Thai dish that I make often. I was so revolted by the texture and the taste that I literally spit out the first bite and dumped my serving into the garbage. My husband, who is not a picky eater, thought I was over reacting until he tried it. His reaction was the same. I’ll take the empty calories of any of the other pastas over this option.

Conclusion

Unless you are going to avoid pasta altogether, don’t worry about which one you choose. The nutritional value is relatively the same for each type. Unless, you need gluten free, use what which ever type tastes the best to you or fits the type of dish you are cooking. Unless the package says that it uses flour from whole grains, assume that it is refined (processed to remove the bran and kernel which removes the good dietary fiber).

For those of you lucky folks that aren’t “dieting” and aren’t trying to lose weight…..there’s really no major benefit of one pasta over the other. They all have about the same calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fiber.

My choice is quinoa. Primarily, because it tastes good, is gluten free, has the same fiber as whole wheat, and I can find whole grain versions. My husband is a type 2 diabetic and this type of pasta has the least effect over his blood sugar. As none of the choices are particularly nutritious, make sure that what ever you put on top of it does provide a balance of more protein, vitamins, fiber, etc. Net result….don’t feel guilty, but limit the pasta serving size and always serve it with healthy toppings and side dishes.

Resources:

WebMD

Iowa State University

nutritiondata.self.com

 

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