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Alternative pastas are touted as healthier, but how do they taste?

When we think of pasta, we think of the comfort food of Italy: jumbo shells stuffed with ricotta and spinach, farfalle with pancetta and peas, rotini with tomatoes and basil.

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti,” Sophia Loren once said, summing up her passion for pasta. “I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size 0.”

But if you’ve browsed the grocery aisles lately, you know this ain’t your Nonna’s noodles anymore.

Catering to an array of low-carb and high-protein diets, the new generation of pastas are made with ingredients like chickpea and lentil flour, quinoa and rice flour, and vegetables ranging from carrots and beets to spinach and tomatoes.

“The vegetable pasta is not that much more nutritious, but the colors are very nice and the textures are fine,” said Nora Bulloch, lead dietitian for the Center for Well-Being in Santa Rosa. “They are made with white flour, but I think what’s good about it is that you’re accustoming your child’s eye to color.”

The experts at Whole Foods Markets named alternative pastas as one of the top 10 trends to watch in 2017. But if you’ve gone out and tried some, you know they tend to cost a bit more, and their flavor and texture can sometimes be disappointing.

“People don’t love the whole wheat pasta,” Bulloch said of the fiber-rich pasta. “It’s heavy, and there are so many other good uses for whole wheat, like bread.”

The legume pasta, on the other hand, provides extra fiber and protein. But the flavors of the beans and lentils are strong and the texture tends to be grainy or crumbly. Still, those with diabetes or prediabetes may want to give these a try.

“Beans are one of the healthiest foods we can eat,” Bulloch said. “When there’s protein and higher fiber, people with diabetes don’t get such a high spike (of sugar).”

One of her favorite alternatives pastas is the Barilla Protein Plus, which offers good flavor from a blend of legumes, fiber and omega-3s. “It’s not gluten-free,” she said. “But most people don’t need to be gluten-free.”

If you do need to eat gluten-free, she suggested trying a pasta made from brown rice. If you want to try whole wheat pasta, she recommends easing into it by starting with angel hair or mixing in regular pasta with the whole wheat variety.

To help consumers navigate through the newfangled macaroni aisle, we gathered a panel of three local chefs - David Frakes of Lynmar Winery in Sebastopol, Liza Hinman of Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa and Josh Silvers of Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa - to taste through 10 different varieties, chosen at random from the shelves of Oliver’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Safeway. Six of the 10 pastas are gluten-free.

Before getting underway, the chefs discussed what they love about traditional pasta, both fresh and dried.

“I like that little bit of chew that comes from the gluten, and the suppleness,” Silvers said. “Fresh pasta has a real silkiness. Dried pasta has a chewiness and a little bit of bite to it - there’s a time and place for both.”

We cooked each of the dried pastas according to the package directions and served them straight up, asking the tasters to suggest sauces for each. The noodles were evaluated on texture and flavor and awarded up to 5 points for each, with 5 being the top score. Then we tallied the points from each judge to reach a final score for each product. A perfect score would be 30.

Not surprisingly, the two overall winners were made from vegetables and white flour, tying with a score of 22 each. The winning gluten-free pastas - one made from a blend of organic corn flour, quinoa flour and dried vegetables, the other made with organic white rice flour and quinoa flour - also tied, at 19 points each.

Here’s what the judges thought of the texture and flavor of each alternative pasta, without taking into account any health benefits. The amounts are given per 2 ounce serving size.

l. Felicia Organic 100 percent Organic Red Lentil Sedanini, made in Italy

Cost: $4.49 at Oliver’s ($1.12 per serving).

Ingredients: Organic red lentil flour.

Selling points: High protein (15 grams) and good source of fiber (4 grams) plus gluten-free.

Total points: 11.5/30

The lentil flavor of this pasta, shaped like a penne with ridges, came across loud and clear to the judges’ palates.

“It tastes like lentil, but not in a good way,” Hinman said. “It would overpower the sauce.”

The texture did not rate well either. “It’s firm but mushy, with a chalkiness in the back of the throat,” Silvers said.

The panel suggested serving it with anything that goes well with red lentils, such as a chunky lamb ragu sauce.

2. Edison Grainery Organic Sorghum Penne, made in the U.S.

Cost: $4.69 at Oliver’s ($1.17 per serving).

Ingredients: Organic sorghum flavor.

Selling points: Gluten-free, with 3 grams protein and 1.7 grams fiber.

Total points: 12.5/30

Sorghum is a cereal grain native of Africa that is often turned into a sweetener. Although they could not identify the sorghum, the judges liked the texture of this pasta and the mild flavor, which was deemed a good thing.

“The flavor is more natural,” Silvers said. “You could do a lot of cream sauces.”

Both Frakes and Hinman suggested serving it with a sauce made with lighter vegetables and Mediterranean flavors.

“I want some basil and artichoke,” Frakes said. “This would be good in a pasta salad.”

3. Wacky Mac Veggie Bows, made in the U.S.

Cost: $1.50 at Oliver’s ($0.25 per serving).

Ingredients: Semolina and durum flour; dried tomato, dried beet, dried spinach; various vitamins and minerals.

Selling point: Familiar bow-tie shape, fun colors, affordable price.

Total points: 22/30

For this multi-flavored pasta, the judges were least impressed with the green, which had a muddy green flavor, similar to frozen spinach. And overall, the flavor was a bit disappointing.

“It tastes like an inexpensive pasta, mass-produced and generic,” Hinman said.

However, because it had a texture similar to regular pasta, it ended up one of the top two winners among all the pastas.

Frakes suggested using it in a pasta salad. “It needs some chunky veg in there,” he said.

4. Andrean Dream Quinoa Organic Spaghetti, made in Bolivia

Cost: $4.99 at Oliver’s ($1.29 per serving).

Ingredients: Organic white rice flour and organic quinoa flour.

Selling points: Gluten-free, non-GMO, vegan.

Total points: 19/30

The judges were divided on the texture of this one, which some thought was too rubbery. In general, the flavor and texture lacked character.

“It eats like it’s gluten-free,” Silvers said. “It’s almost like a rice noodle. If you served this with spaghetti sauce, it would be more about the sauce.”

“I prefer this chew - it bounces back,” Hinman said. “This one at least has texture.”

Frakes suggested throwing in some slivered almonds with the pasta, along with a sauce of butter, cheese, lemon juice and mint.

5. Jovial 100 percent Organic Einkorn Whole Wheat Linguine, made in Italy

Cost: $3.49 at Oliver’s ($0.58 per serving).

Ingredients: Organic whole grain einkorn (wheat) and water.

Selling points: Whole wheat (4 grams of fiber) and high protein (9 grams).

Total points: 14/30

The package describes einkorn as “nature’s original wheat” and “the only wheat never hybridized.” Einkorn is an ancient variety of wheat that boasts a “primitive” gluten that the founders of Jovial believe to be more easily tolerated by those with gluten sensitivities.

The panel enjoyed the nutty flavor with a note of sweet maltiness, reminiscent of Raisin Bran cereal. They were divided on the texture, but the hefty pasta inspired them to come up with some hearty sauces, from pancetta with cream, gorgonzola and walnuts to bacon with Parmesan and chard.

6. O Organics Whole Wheat Rotini, made in the U.S.

Cost: $1.99 at Safeway ($0.24 a serving).

Ingredients: Organic whole wheat durum flour.

Selling points: High fiber (6 grams) and protein (7 grams).

Total points: 14/30

7. Barilla Veggie Penne, made in the U.S.

Cost: $1.99 at Safeway ($0.33 per serving).

Ingredients: Semolina and Durum wheat flour; tomato and carrot puree.

Selling points: Non-GMO, 1 full serving of vegetables per 3.5 ounce portion.

Total Points: 22/30

The panel picked up immediately on the tomato flavor of the pasta, which seemed to overpower the carrots.

“It tastes like dehydrated tomato paste,” Hinman said, “It has a concentrate flavor.”

But the texture from the wheat flours gave it enough points to tie for first place, and the noodles inspired lots of ideas for simple sauces: a cream sauce, a pesto sauce or a simple pasta salad with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes.

8. Banza Penne from Chickpeas.

Cost: $3.99 at Whole Foods ($0.99 per serving).

Ingredients: Chickpeas, tapioca, pea protein, xanthan gum.

Selling points: High protein (14 grams) and fiber (8 grams).

Total points: 5/30

Neither flavor not texture endeared themselves to our tasting panel, who were unanimous in their distaste.

“It tastes like burnt rubber, and it’s starchy on the surface,” Silvers said. “Spit it out!”

“It’s gross,” Hinman added.

“We have a loser,” Frakes exclaimed. “This one is the worst … throw it in with a bunch of chiles.”

9. Ancient Harvest Garden Pagodas, made in the U.S.

Cost: $3.19 at Whole Foods ($0.79 per serving)

Ingredients: Organic corn flour, organic quinoa flour, dried organic spinach, dried organic beer and/or red bell pepper.

Selling points: High protein (4 grams) good fiber (4 grams) and gluten-free.

Total points: 19/30

This pasta, which tied for first place among the gluten-free products, had the grainy texture but was deemed “not horrible for gluten-free” by Frakes.

“The green tastes like muddy spinach and the yellow is corny,” Hinman said.

However, the shape of the pasta was heralded by all as providing all kinds of ridges to soak up yummy sauces like tomato sauce or pesto cream.

“It’s a fun shape,” Silvers aid. “You could do all kinds of sauces with it to smooth out that texture.”

10. Black Bean Rotini, made in the U.S.

Cost: $2.99 at Trader Joe’s ($0.49 per serving)

Ingredients: Organic Black Bean Flour.

Selling points: Organic and gluten-free, with high protein (14 grams) and fiber (15 grams).

Total points: 16.5/30

Like the lentil pasta, this rotini tastes exactly like its only ingredient: black beans.

The texture was not great but not the worst.

“It’s crunchy but mushy, like a poorly cooked bean,” Hinman said.

The beany flavor made Italian sauces out of the question - despite a recipe for a mushroom Alfredo on the package - but lends itself to anything Southwestern, such as a pasta salad with corn and tomatoes or a sauce of creamy chipotle with corn.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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