I first heard about the importance of eating whole grains at an otherwise forgettable scientific conference nearly a decade ago. I was so blown away by the accumulating evidence of their protective effect against chronic disease that I made a beeline for the grocery store when I got home and purchased a box of the one brand of whole grain pasta I could find.
Now, I love pasta (and truth be told, all manners of starch). But the gummy, leaden mess that came out of this box had no right to carry such a noble name. Every bite began with paste and ended with grit. I dumped the whole pot and bemoaned my inevitable future of refined flour-induced ill health.
But a funny thing happened over the 10 years that followed: Food manufacturers started catching on to the benefits of whole grains. Dietitians have long known that they retain all the disease-fighting, health-promoting powerhouse nutrients (folate, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, selenium, lignans, and phenolic compounds) that refining strips away. They also pack more fiber than do refined grains, and large studies have repeatedly shown how consuming enough fiber can help reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes. If that doesn't wow you, try this: Eating whole grains may even help you avoid weight gain. Sold!
Now that cereal, snack food, and tons of other product labels scream "Whole grains!" in all caps, I decided to take another look at the pasta aisle. My, how things have changed. I counted 11 different choices, and the Whole Grains Council, a trade group, tells me that sales of whole grain pasta increased 26 percent last year alone.
What I noticed first were the ingredient lists. I expected whole wheat but—lentils? Chickpeas? Flaxseed? Today's choices run the gamut between pure 100 percent whole wheat, which contains no refined flour, and grain blends, which don't always have as much fiber but make up for it with more pleasant textures and less assertive flavors. The latest blends combine various grain flours with seeds, legumes, and other ingredients to improve the texture while preserving nutrition. Some offer nutrients you aren't likely to find in traditional pasta, such as omega-3 fatty acids (thanks to flax). I tested the whole lot. The four listed here passed muster with my husband (one picky chef), my kids (two even pickier teens), and myself (the pickiest of all). Buon appetito.
The Standout: Barilla Plus
- A multigrain blend made with oat, spelt, barley, lentil, and chickpea flours.
- Contains flaxseed for added omega-3s.
- Each serving satisfies nearly one-fifth of your daily value for protein.
- Taste and texture is most like refined-flour pasta.
200 cal, 10 g pro, 38 g carb, 1 g fat, 0 g sat fat, 0 mg chol, 4 g fiber, 25 mg sodium*
Highest fiber: De Cecco Whole Wheat
- 100% whole wheat.
- High in fiber, low in calories.
- Fairly assertive wheat flavor that marries well with rich sauces.
180 cal, 8 g pro, 35 g carb, 1.5 g fat, 0 g sat fat, <5 mg chol, 7 g fiber, 0 mg sodium*
Tasty Blend: Ronzoni Healthy Harvest
- Wheat flour blend with additional wheat bran and fiber.
- Slightly chewier and nuttier in flavor than Barilla Plus.
- Best served with robust sauces, such as marinara.
180 cal, 6 g pro, 42 g carb, 1 g fat, 0 g sat fat, 0 mg chol, 6 g fiber, 0 mg sodium*
Organic Pick: 365 Organic Everyday Value Whole Wheat
- 100% organic whole wheat flour; a heartier flavor than most blended brands.
- Firm texture; nutty, slightly sweet taste; great with spicy sauces.
- Available only at Whole Foods Markets.
210 cal, 7 g pro, 42 g carb, 1 g fat, 0 g sat fat, 0 mg chol, 5 g fiber, 0 g sodium*
*Nutrition info is per 2-ounce serving.