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.