If you've tried whole-grain pastas in the past, you may want to try them again, because now there are more reasons than ever to serve them at your table.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner / Styling Jan Gautro

The new generation of whole-grain pastas boasts hearty, full flavor and texture closer to that of refined pastas. Moreover, whole-grain pasta has the endorsement of the United States Department of Agriculture's current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A mounting body of research finds whole grains may lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity. A 2004 study at Tufts University in Boston, for example, found that people who eat three or more servings of whole grains a day had approximately a 30 percent lower risk of having metabolic syndrome, a condition that increases risk of diabetes and heart disease. And according to five long-term studies in the United States, Finland, and Norway, people who eat large amounts of whole grains have significantly lower rates of heart disease than those who don't.

The USDA now urges Americans to eat at least three servings of whole grains a day-about half of the recommended daily grain intake. Filling that quota with whole-grain breads and cereals are two options, but whole-grain pastas provide a tasty new way to meet your body's needs.

Unrefined Benefits
The power of whole-grain pasta-as with other whole-grain foods-appears to be its mix of nutrients, not any single substance, says Nicola M. McKeown, Ph.D., lead author of the Tufts study. Unlike traditional pastas made of refined durum wheat, or semolina, whole-grain noodles don't lose their bran and germ during processing. Bran, the outer skin of a whole grain, and the germ, or embryo of the grain, carry considerable healthful fats, protein, antioxidants, B vitamins, minerals, and fiber. One of these minerals, magnesium, increases the body's sensitivity to insulin, which may help to lower the risk of diabetes. And dietary vitamin E, folate, and fiber may reduce the risk of heart disease. Another thing high-fiber diets might do is drive down harmful glucose, insulin, and fat levels in the blood.

Fiber is also kind to your waistline. A 2005 Tufts study found that women whose diets are rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains weighed less and had less body fat than those who ate less fiber and more meat. And in an earlier study at Louisiana State University, researchers found that the single greatest predictor of obesity in middle-aged women was a lack of fiber in their diets.

"The beauty of fiber is that it fills us up so we don't eat as much," says Dee Sandquist, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and director of the Weight Management Center at the Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington. "And you feel full much more quickly than when you eat refined foods."

More Varieties, Better Availability
Whole-grain pastas-from whole wheat to spelt-are increasingly easy to find on grocery shelves and in restaurants. According to Mintel's Global New Products Database, 48 new whole-grain pastas rolled onto the shelves in the first half of 2005, more than four times the number introduced in 2002. And because many product labels boast "wheat" or "grain" content, it's helpful that the Whole Grains Council in Boston, Massachusetts, has introduced a food packaging stamp, easing buyers' confusion about which foods have whole grains. The stamp indicates whether the product is a Good Source (which offers a half-serving of whole grain per portion), an Excellent Source (a full serving of whole grain), or 100% Whole Grain/Excellent Source (a full serving with no refined grains). Still, the stamp system is voluntary, so as an alternative, look for whole grain to be first on the product's ingredient list.

What is best about many of the newest whole-grain pastas is that their taste is far superior to that of their predecessors, thanks in part to improved production technology that creates a smoother, less grainy texture. When you hanker for comfort food, toss whole wheat linguine with cheese and asparagus, or mix brown rice penne with grilled eggplant and marinara-toppings that can stand up to the grains' firm bite and nutty flavor. Or branch out to less familiar grains like spelt (an ancient, nutty-flavored grain) and kamut (a high-protein, buttery-tasting wheat), whole-grain pastas that impart an earthy essence.

Some manufacturers, such as Barilla and Healthy Harvest, have introduced blended pastas, a mix of semolina and whole grains. These new pastas are substantial without being too grainy, a faultless foil for rich tomato sauces. Other options include whole wheat spinach or artichoke noodles, whole wheat couscous, and whole wheat spirals with flaxseed (which are terrific with a hearty stir-fry). Or experiment with corn and rice pastas, spelt ribbons, and kamut spirals. Branch out and try amaranth and quinoa (high-protein South American grains). You will discover it is fun to freshen up your pasta-and your palate-with fresh, new flavors, and you will also enjoy the many benefits of whole-grain goodness in the process.