October 2019 Issue
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 21, No. 10, P. 20
Are they more nutritious than traditional varieties?
According to the National Pasta Association, Americans consume almost 20 lbs of pasta per person per year, putting them in the top 10 of 47 countries analyzed.1 Traditional pastas, made from durum wheat flour, are clearly a mainstay of the American diet, but an increasing number of vegetable- and bean-based pastas are appearing on grocery shelves, offering stiff competition and, some say, a more healthful alternative.
These alternative pastas and pastalike products made from “spiralized” vegetables had, as of last year, grown to more than $250 million from an estimated $75 million to $100 million in 2010.2 Ironically, “pasta” is Italian for “dough,” and many vegetable- and bean-based pastas—part of the “alternative pasta” category—aren’t made from dough. While these newer pasta varieties are appealing, with colors ranging from emerald green to ruby red, depending on the vegetable added, it’s tough to know just how much vegetable the products contain and whether they offer greater nutritional value than traditional wheat-based pastas.
Today’s Dietitian (TD) takes a closer look at these alternative pastas and evaluates what they offer (and what they don’t).
Vegetable-Based Pasta Nutrition
Vegetable-based pastas are viewed (and promoted) as good-for-you pastas that offer an easy way to get more vegetables in the diet. Since only about 9% of American adults consume the recommended intake of two to three cups of vegetables per day, vegetable-based pastas are extremely appealing.3 But vegetable-based pastas run the gamut in terms of calories, sodium, fiber, and calorie content, not to mention the amount of vegetables they contain. Almost all are low in sodium. The only exceptions are those already incorporated into a dish, such as marinara pasta.
While the ingredient list reveals the vegetables the pastas are made from, they don’t always show how much of a given vegetable, such as spinach, parsley, kale, green peas, zucchini, or tomatoes, is included. In addition, some contain durum wheat flour like traditional pasta, while others don’t.
The standard serving size for traditional pasta is 2 oz, dry. However, among the alternative pastas that provide vegetable specifics, the serving sizes needed to obtain a significant amount of vegetables can be as much as two to three times the standard serving size for pasta. Because serving sizes vary greatly among brands and some are stated as ounces, others in cups, trying to compare them is a game of apples and oranges.
For example, a 3.5-oz uncooked portion of Barilla Veggie Rotini provides 20% of the daily recommended amount of vegetables, which translates to about 2/5 cup to 3/5 cup of vegetables for 350 kcal. A 1 1/4-cup serving of frozen Birds Eye Veggie Made 100% Vegetable Pasta, Rotini Marinara, provides one serving of vegetables at 160 kcal. Ronzoni SuperGreens Rotini Pasta boasts three servings of vegetables in a 3.5-oz dry portion, but the serving size on the nutrition label is about one-half of that, 3/4 cup, which provides 200 kcal.
“Find one that tastes good, and know the appropriate portions,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, FAND, author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Because vegetables typically are added to the products in the form of powders or purées, the fiber provided may be much less than what’s available in an equivalent amount of whole vegetables. For some pastas, the source of fiber comes from added glucomannan starch (also labeled as konjac flour), and while traditional dry pastas in the United States are enriched with iron, riboflavin, thiamine, and folic acid, most alternative pastas aren’t. A 2-oz serving of traditional dry pasta (about 1 cup, cooked) supplies the equivalent of about 100 mcg of folic acid, or 25% DV, making it an excellent source of the B vitamin, and about 10% DV for iron.
“Although these pastas offer an opportunity to get a ‘vegetable serving’ in the diet, I counsel my patients to make room for vegetables in their whole form, rather than relying on pasta as a vegetable serving,” says Alicia Romano, MS, RD, LDN, CNSC, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a dietitian at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. She also says vegetables such as beets, carrots, and spinach, which may be puréed or in powder form, may lose many of the beneficial nutritional properties of whole vegetables during processing, such as vitamins and minerals, in addition to fiber.
Bean-Based Pasta Nutrition
Beans, lentils, edamame, and chickpeas can be counted as either vegetables or protein sources. So it’s no surprise that pastas made with any one of these are packed with protein. “They really do pack a nice nutritional punch when compared with other pasta varietals,” Romano says.
Some bean-based pastas provide as much as 25 g protein in each 2-oz serving. For comparison, a 3-oz serving (100 g) of chicken breast contains 16 g protein. If clients or patients are looking to boost protein intake, these pastas are the better choice. Bean-, lentil-, edamame-, and chickpea-based pastas also are much higher in fiber than even whole wheat pastas, which can contain up to 25% of recommended daily fiber intake in each 2-oz dry portion, while bean-based pastas can provide as much as 50% of the recommended fiber intake of 25 g/day. But like whole wheat pastas and most other alternative pastas, they aren’t fortified with B vitamins and iron. While they aren’t likely to contain durum wheat, bean-based pastas may contain other ingredients such as soy, xanthan gum, and tapioca.
What About Gluten?
With so many clients trying to avoid gluten, whether warranted or not, they may view vegetable- and bean-based pastas as gluten-free alternatives. But that’s not always the case. Most of these alternative pastas contain wheat flour in addition to vegetables or beans. In fact, only a few are certified gluten-free.
While most bean-based pastas are gluten-free, reading the ingredient label and looking for the gluten-free symbol is the only way for clients to know for sure.
The cost of these alternative pastas varies almost as much as their vegetable combinations. The pasta products TD evaluated (see table) range in price from about $0.85 for a 12-oz box to $3 for an 8-oz box.
Organic pasta products generally are more expensive than nonorganic products, and major brands such as Barilla and Ronzoni usually are less expensive than smaller specialty brands. However, even the more expensive vegetable- and bean-based pastas make for economical meals.
Cooking With Vegetable- and Bean-Based Pastas
Like traditional durum wheat pastas, vegetable- and bean-based pastas are convenient and easy to prepare. Each product provides its own cooking instructions, which are usually similar to those for traditional pastas.
Many of the products’ websites offer recipes, but most of the vegetable- and bean-based pastas can be substituted for any existing pasta recipes clients and patients already use. The only exceptions are products such as Thrive Miracle Noodle Spinach Shirataki, which is mainly water and glucomannan with spinach listed as the last ingredient. (Despite being labeled as a noodle, it isn’t really a pasta product.)
Green Giant Veggie Spirals Zucchini, which is 100% zucchini, has a higher water content than other pastas. “Most vegetable-based pastas seem to maintain similar texture to regular pasta varieties; taste is similar but may vary based on the type of vegetable added,” Romano says. However, she adds, “bean-based pastas differ slightly in taste and texture.”
Adding tomato sauces along with whole vegetables, such as zucchini, beans, carrots, or lentils, boosts the nutrient contribution of a meal made with any of these pastas.
While there are several studies that have examined the health effects of diets rich in traditional durum wheat pasta,4-6 there are no studies that have examined the nutrition impact of substituting vegetable-based pastas for traditional durum wheat pastas. Because of the wide variation in the nutrient content of these type of pasta products, such a study seems unlikely.
“Vegetable pastas offer an opportunity to sneak in an extra vegetable serving, which may be great for picky eaters, but a serving of 100% whole grain pasta paired with vegetables in their whole form offers a much more robust nutritional punch,” Romano says.
Be sure clients and patients understand that vegetable pastas aren’t uniform. Nutrition, taste, and texture can vary considerably, unlike traditional pastas, which generally are uniform in taste and nutrition and vary mainly in shape. The color of a vegetable-based pasta is no indication of the amount of vegetable it contains or its nutrient content, as some have turmeric or annatto added to enhance color.
Reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists is the only way to make an informed choice. Likewise, trying and tasting is the only way to find one that suits individual palates.
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
1. Wrigley CW, Corke H, Seetharaman K, Faubion J, eds. Encyclopedia of Food Grains. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press; 2016.
2. Green Circle Capital Partners. Better-for-you-pasta — renewing growth for the category. http://greencirclecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/BFY-Pasta-category-7-1-2018.pdf. Published July 2018.
3. Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html. Published November 16, 2017. Accessed August 7, 2019.
4. Pounis G, Castelnuovo AD, Costanzo S, et al. Association of pasta consumption with body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio: results from Moli-sani and INHES studies. Nutr Diabetes. 2016;6(7):e218.
5. Chiavaroli L, Kendall CWC, Braunstein CR, et al. Effect of pasta in the context of low-glycaemic index dietary patterns on body weight and markers of adiposity: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trails in adults. BMJ Open. 2018;8(3):e019438.
6. Cioffi I. Evaluation of different types of pasta di Gragnano on appetite regulation and metabolic profile. University of Naples website. http://www.fedoa.unina.it/10114/1/Tesi%20di%20dottorato_IC.pdf. Published April 13, 2015.