Pasta perfection

People love pasta and most consider it to be a healthy part of a balanced diet. FSD breaks down the different types of pasta, including the nutritional makeup to help operators decide when and how to menu pasta dishes at their operations.

Consumers today consider pasta to be a healthy choice as part of a balanced diet—at least, so say 84% percent of those surveyed for the National Pasta Association’s (NPA) 2004 American Pasta Report, which cites the nutritional value, taste and convenience of pasta as top reasons for its growing popularity.

The NPA reports that Northeasterners (84%) are more likely to eat pasta weekly than people living in other parts of the U.S. (75%). One-in-five Northeasterners and Westerners serve pasta three or more times a week. But although Southerners are less likely to eat pasta regularly, 70% say that they do.

Plenty of pasta: Forty percent of NPA survey respondents ranked spaghetti as their favorite pasta, followed by lasagna (12%) and macaroni and cheese (6%), but there are more than 150 kinds of pasta available in the U.S. And its versatility makes it perfect for use in all types of foodservice venues. Cooks can easily incorporate it into salads, soups, appetizers, side dishes, entrees and even desserts.

Pasta comes in four forms: dried, fresh, frozen and cooked. Most packaged pasta is made from semolina—high-protein, golden flour milled from durum wheat. Fresh pasta is made from durum or other wheat flour, water and usually whole eggs. It is slightly higher in fat and cholesterol than dried pasta. Examples include ravioli, tortellini and fettuccine. Stuffing like meat and cheese adds more fat, cholesterol and calories.

Fresh and dried Asian wheat noodles, made with and without eggs, can be used in soups, stir-fried dishes and salads. Non-wheat noodles include soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles), rice and cellophane noodles, made from mung bean flour.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines pasta as “macaroni” or “noodles.” Macaroni must be made from semolina, durum flour, farina flour or any combination of two or more of these, along with water and optional ingredients (e.g., salt, vegetable powders, flavors). In addition to these guidelines, noodles must also contain at least 5.5% egg solids by weight. If egg yolks are used, one cup of cooked noodles contains about 2-3 grams of fat and 55 milligrams of cholesterol, but about the same amount of calories and protein as other pasta. (Egg whites have no fat or cholesterol.)

Nutritional value: In the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid, pasta is part of the grain group. It recommends six  to 11 servings daily. One serving equals only one-half cup of cooked pasta. Editor’s Note: The USDA will soon reveal a revamped version of the pyramid to support its recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. The guidelines recommend eating the equivalent of 6 ounces of foods from the grain group (based on a 2,000-calorie diet).

Pasta, eaten in moderation and topped with low-calorie sauces, is not “fattening.” Two ounces of dried pasta or three ounces of fresh pasta, which equals one cup cooked, provide two servings with about 200 calories; 7 grams protein; 40 grams complex carbohydrate, amounting to 80% of calories; 2 grams fiber and 1 gram fat. It is naturally low in sodium. Enriched wheat pasta is a good source of iron, selenium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid.

Whole wheat pasta contains about 4-6 grams of dietary fiber, which is two to three times more than in semolina pasta, and has more trace minerals like zinc and copper, as well. Protein-fortified pasta is fortified with soy flour, wheat germ, yeast or dairy products (e.g., whey) to provide 20% to100% more protein than regular pasta.

Vegetable purees, such as spinach and tomato, in pasta may add color and flavor, but no nutritional benefits.

For people who have wheat allergy or celiac disease—gluten intolerance requiring avoidance of wheat, oats, rye and barley—offer pasta made from corn, rice, lentils and starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams and Jerusalem artichokes. Corn pasta contains more fiber but less protein and iron than wheat pasta. Buckwheat noodles provide fewer calories (113 per cup) than wheat and are gluten-free.

Cooking tips: Here are six pointers from NPA for cooking perfect pasta:

  • Boil four to six quarts of water in an uncovered pot for each pound of dry pasta.
  • Add pasta slowly while stirring, and return water to a boil. Stir pasta occasionally. Don’t add salt or vegetable oil to the water.
  • Follow package instructions for cooking time, which depends on the type, shape and size of the pasta. Usually, dried pasta and wheat pasta cook slower than fresh pasta and pasta made from other grains. If pasta will be used in a dish like lasagna requiring more cooking, undercook the pasta by one-third of the usual cooking time.
  • Don’t overcook. Pasta should be al dente, but cooked through.
  • Drain immediately. Don’t rinse to avoid removing B-vitamins, unless serving pasta in a cold dish like salad or handling it further as with lasagna or manicotti. To rinse, use cold water to stop the cooking process and drain well.
  • Toss drained pasta lightly with a little sauce or vegetable oil.

Pasta sauces: Use chunky sauces for thick pasta like ziti and thin sauces for thin pasta like angel hair. When choosing commercial sauces, look for ones with no more than about 80 calories, 500 mg. of sodium, 6 grams of sugar and 3 grams of fat per serving.

To prepare low-fat sauces, add herbs, spices and vegetables, which contain many vitamins and phytochemicals. Tomatoes are rich in beta-carotene and lycopene which may help prevent some types of cancer and heart disease. Also, add small amounts of cooked lean beef or turkey, tofu, beans or lentils to increase protein.