Natural Foods Merchandiser

Options for pasta boil over

When Wonder Bread introduced a whole-grain version of its iconic white loaf in 2005, it was obvious the bad press about refined flour had reached even the most conventional consumers. It seemed only a matter of time before we'd see mainstream whole-grain versions of that other traditional white-flour comfort food: pasta. But not only is there no spelt SpaghettiO's or Chef Boyardee rice ravioli available today, there are few spelt or rice pastas, period. The same goes for soy, corn, quinoa, kamut, buckwheat and other alternatives to traditional durum semolina pasta.

Even naturals shoppers have been known to say basta to alternative pasta. The most popular of the alternative pastas, whole wheat, still get crowded out by white pastas in many natural foods stores. The problem is that while most shoppers understand that alternative pastas have more nutrients than their conventional counterparts, the taste and texture of whole-grain, rice and soy pastas are difficult for some to swallow.

But that's changing, says supermarket analyst Phil Lempert. "Brand marketing efforts seem to be helping whole-grain pastas gain trial and traction with new users," he wrote in his August 2006 "Facts, Figures & the Future" newsletter. Lempert cites ACNielsen reports showing that whole-grain pasta sales rose 34 percent in 2005 and 26 percent in 2006.

Manufacturers are working to develop alternative pasta that's not only good for you, but just plain good. "The word has gotten out that whole-grain pasta is no longer gnarly, but it still varies from brand to brand," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategy for the Whole Grains Council, a Boston-based advocacy group.

The main problem, Harriman says, is "if you overcook [alternative pastas], they can get really gummy and awful. Maybe that's the same case with white pasta and people are just used to it, but there is a low tolerance for gummy, mushy whole-grain pasta." According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Pasta Association, durum, the main ingredient in most U.S.-produced pasta, is the "hardest wheat known to man." Consequently, it's able to retain its shape and firmness during cooking better than any other type of wheat—or soy, rice or whole-grain—pasta.

Alternative pasta manufacturers have addressed that problem by figuring out the correct cooking times for their products, ensuring that if consumers follow directions, their noodles can be al dente. But the taste issue has a few more nuances.

Taste test
Most white pasta is made only from the endosperm of the durum wheat grain (known as semolina). Whole-grain pastas, including whole wheat, spelt, quinoa, kamut and buckwheat, are made from all three components of a grain—the endosperm, bran and germ. That makes them significantly higher in fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals than refined-flour pasta. "So while white pasta … contains the complex carbohydrates and protein found in the endosperm, you'll miss out on the 22 various nutrients found in the bran and the germ," writes Margaret Wittenberg in Good Food: The Comprehensive Food and Nutrition Resource (Crossing Press, 1995). The bran and germ also give whole-grain pastas a stronger, sweeter, nuttier taste than durum semolina. For many people, whole-grain pastas are an acquired taste, although, as Harriman points out: "The good thing is once you're used to them, the other stuff tastes kind of bland."

Sarah Krieger, R.D., a personal chef in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says the best way to serve whole-grain pasta is with a rustic sauce. "Cover it up with garlic, onion, basil, tomato—strong flavors."

Harriman cautions that not all whole-grain pastas are equally tasty. "Some companies get how to make the good stuff, and some don't," she says. That's why sampling is key. "It's important to tell people if they try one brand and don't like it, they should try another and not just give up on whole-grain pastas altogether."

Krieger says corn, quinoa or rice pastas might prove to be palate pleasers for some. "Rice pasta is pretty bland—it's a real carrier for flavor," she says. Another plus: "It's great for people who have a lot of food allergies." On the minus side, it has less fiber than durum semolina pasta, she says, and can easily tend to become mushy if not cooked properly.

Corn has the advantage of being a similar color to traditional pastas. "It also tastes like semolina, cooks the same, has the same amount of fiber but is gluten-free, " Krieger says. "It's nice with cheddar-cheese sauce, which makes it good for kids." On the minus side: Corn pasta has about half the protein and fewer vitamins and minerals than durum semolina pasta, Wittenberg says.

Quinoa has a "corn, nutty-type flavor" that is stronger than corn or rice pastas but not as noticeable as some other whole-grain pastas, Krieger says. "I've cooked quinoa before and haven't told people, and they couldn't taste the difference between it and semolina." Quinoa has the advantage of being "pretty sturdy—it holds up pretty well if you cook it al dente," Krieger says. It's also gluten-free. Quinoa particularly lends itself to sauces with garlic, black beans, corn and peppers, she says. Sometimes it's mixed with corn pasta to increase corn's nutritional value without compromising the taste.

Krieger avoids soy pasta when cooking for durum devotees. "It's not the first thing I would recommend for someone trying out alternative pastas for the first time," she says. "It has a beany flavor and an earthy taste that's quite strong, and it can be gummy and slimy if it's not cooked enough." On the plus side, it's great for people with gluten intolerances, or for vegetarians and vegans. "It's one of the more complete proteins," Krieger says. She recommends mixing soy with a whole-grain pasta and using the mixture in a casserole with beans and tomatoes.

Among the whole-wheat pastas, Harriman's favorite for beginners is Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Rotini. "Its texture is similar to white pasta after it's cooked, and it also cooks lighter [than some whole-grain pastas]," she says.

A <em>Consumer Reports</em> survey ranked seven whole-wheat spaghettis by taste and found lots to like—a switch from a previous test. "When we last reported on [whole-wheat pastas] in 1992, we couldn't recommend any of the four we tested," <em>Consumer Reports</em> investigators wrote in an October 2005 report. In the 2005 survey, they ranked three as "very good" and four as "good."

A 2006 Washington Post survey agreed with CR on three brands, but it gave thumbs down to the other brands <em>Consumer Reports</em> liked, underscoring Harriman's theory that customers need to test whole-wheat pastas themselves because individual tastes vary.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 26,28

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