Question: My kids love pasta but is it good for them? I’m trying to cut out carbohydrate-rich foods like white bread and white rice. Should I put pasta on that list too?
Answer: Traditional pasta is made from durum wheat. Even though it’s made from white flour, it differs from other refined grain products such as cereals, bagels, cookies and other baked goods. When cooked al dente, meaning to the tooth, it has a low glycemic index (GI). The GI is a measure of how fast the carbohydrate in a food enters the bloodstream compared to white bread and sugar. High GI foods can have a number of negative health effects including promoting weight gain. Pasta’s carbs, though, are digested slowly but if you overcook it, its GI count soars. As well, gluten-free pastas vary in their GI counts, depending on the flour used. For example, rice noodles have a high GI rating.
At the recent Scientific Consensus Conference on the Healthy Pasta Meal in Italy (organized by the non-profit Oldways and the International Pasta Organisation), pasta’s nutritional benefits were front and centre. And the good news – especially since youngsters do love their noodles – is that there are plenty.
For example, whole wheat pasta supplies more fibre, something people of all ages are lacking. To boost the nutritional profile even further, we should take some lessons from the Mediterranean diet pattern. Pasta is used as a foundation for a variety of wholesome toppings.
Combining pasta with vegetables and/or legumes is an easy way to boost your children’s intake of these foods. For instance, for more protein and fibre, you can add canned, rinsed and drained white kidney beans (cannellini) to your regular tomato sauce. If your kids are not fans of beans, start slowly by adding some puréed beans to the sauce. Then over time, increase the amount of beans, eventually leaving them whole as their tastes adjust.
Also consider venturing beyond tomato sauce. Sautéing various vegetables with olive oil and garlic – zucchini and cherry tomatoes, for example, or broccoli and pepper strips – and topped with cheese, is not only nutritious and delicious but it’s also fast to cook and get on the table. Consider that you can make a pasta meal completely from ingredients from your pantry and/or freezer – a terrific option if you haven’t been shopping. Preparing the mix would likely take as long as it would to cook the pasta.
Adding a generous amount of vegetables also helps to combat portion distortion. A plate of pasta alone can supply too much of a good thing. Topping the dish off with extra virgin olive oil not only makes the pasta and vegetable combo more tasty but also healthier: the oil enhances the absorption of various nutrients such as the carotenoids or pigments like beta carotene and lycopene, the red one found in tomatoes.
So get your pasta pot out and start cooking – without hesitation!
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2016.