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Pasta: Surprisingly Nutritious

by Berkeley Wellness

Many of the names given to types of pasta are Italian, but the Italians hardly have a monopoly on this food. Although the origin of pasta hasn’t been established, the evidence indicates that various forms developed independently in many cultures.

The Chinese may have eaten noodles as early as 5000 BCE. It is widely believed that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from the Far East in 1295. Though if he did, it was probably to compare it to the pasta already there since the Etruscans, who occupied part of what is now Italy, were making pasta as early as 400 BCE.

The history of pasta in the United States is much clearer. Thomas Jefferson was the first to bring it to this country (in the late 1700s) after tasting some during a visit to Naples while he was the American ambassador to France. The first pasta factory in the United States opened in 1848 in Brooklyn, New York, but pasta remained a relatively uncommon food until the late 19th century, when Italian immigrants introduced the dried wheat pastas that have since become the most popular types of pasta in this country.

Types of Pasta

From spaghetti and tortellini to ramen and udon, here are some of the many varieties of dried and fresh noodles you'll find in stores.

Pasta: nutrition

Rich in complex carbohydrates and protein, and low in fat, pasta can be a highly nutritious food, especially if it’s made from whole wheat. Enriched wheat pastas, which make up the bulk of commercially available pastas, also offer good levels of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, and selenium.

Pasta is made from a mixture of water and flour or semolina. Semolina is a type of flour made from durum, a hard spring wheat with a high protein content and golden color. The more semolina a pasta contains, the more protein it provides, though the protein from pasta is incomplete. When eggs are added to pasta, the pasta will then provide fat and dietary cholesterol, as well as other nutrients found in eggs.

Pasta also contains gluten, a protein formed when water and wheat flour are mixed—the same protein responsible for giving bread dough its elasticity. People with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten may be allergic to wheat and wheat products. Anyone on a gluten-restricted diet should avoid wheat pasta.

Since 1998, all refined grain products in the United States have been fortified with folic acid. For instance, 1 cup of cooked pasta contains about 100 micrograms of folic acid, which is 25 percent of the recommended daily intake. And studies show that the folic acid used to fortify foods, as well as that in supplements, is actually better absorbed by the body than the vitamin naturally found in foods.

Many people regard pasta as a fattening food, which is a recurring myth. Eating a moderate amount of carbohydrate-rich foods does not stimulate the appetite or lead to more or easier fat storage and weight gain. However, if you eat oversized portions or drown your pasta in heavy meat sauces or cream- or cheese-based sauces, then it can indeed contribute to weight gain.

For a full listing of nutrients, see the National Nutrient Database:

How to Choose the Best Pasta

Most supermarkets routinely stock 20 to 30 pasta shapes. Learn which sauces pair best with which shapes.

How to store pasta

Store dried pasta in a cool, dry place and it will keep for many months. As an extra precaution, remove the pasta from its original package and place it in an airtight container.

Store fresh pasta tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. It will keep for a week in the refrigerator or a month in the freezer. Fresh Asian noodles will keep for a day or two under refrigeration, or for three months in the freezer if tightly wrapped.

9 Healthy Recipe Ideas for Pasta

The secret to eating pasta without gaining weight is to pair this nutritious carbohydrate with sauces that are flavorful yet low-calorie. Here are some creative options.

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