How many of us do feel relieved over a nice plate of spaghetti seasoned with tomato sauce? Pasta is nowadays known and appreciated all over the world, in ten years indeed its consumption has doubled reaching the incredible figure of 15 million tons per year. The strength of pasta is that, in addition to being tasty and lending itself to recipes with practically endless combinations, it can also be an important source of health. So let's try to understand the properties of pasta and some pieces of advice on how to cook it.
Pasta, processing and properties
Pasta is a product obtained from flour, which can be wheat, spelt, khorasan wheat or buckwheat flour, and water to which, sometimes, eggs, pulses, soy germ or other ingredients are added to improve appearance, flavor and properties of pasta. In this post, however, we will focus our attention on dried pasta given by the combination of flour and water. When this mixture is still soft and therefore workable, it is passed through grids, which can be made of bronze or teflon-coated metal, and takes the shape that we all know, penne, linguine or spaghetti, just to mention some famous examples. The pasta arrives on our tables where it is cooked with a boiling process and seasoned with the sauce that we prefer. And what are its benefits? Pasta is, first of all, a source of carbohydrates and therefore of energy. Not only that, pasta provides tryptophan, an amino acid precursor of various neurotransmitter compounds including melatonin, a hormone able to promote good sleep and characterized by an antitumor action and protective properties against degenerative diseases, and serotonin, another hormone involved in the regulation of sleep wake rhythm, appetite control and mood (Kostoglou-Athanassiou et al, Ther Adv Endocrinol Metab, 2013 - Jenkins et al, Nutrients, 2016). Pasta also has other interesting properties based on the type and level of processing. In the next paragraph we’ll talk about this topic.
Refined or wholegrain pasta, with or without gluten?
Refined pasta is certainly the most commonly used type of pasta, it is soft and gummy and on the palate it may be more appreciated than wholegrain pasta. However, refined pasta has a higher glycemic index and this can cause, in the short term, an increase in hunger, therefore we eat more and the risk of overweight and obesity is higher. Wholegrain pasta, instead, increases the sense of satiety while guaranteeing the supply of energy (Roberts SB, Nutr Rev, 2000 - Cioffi et al, Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2016). Not only that, the refined pasta is low in antioxidants, vitamins, especially B and E, and fibers, which would act by lowering cholesterol. These substances, on the other hand, are abundant in wholegrain pasta as they are concentrated in the germ and bran that are instead removed during the refining process (Flight et al, Eur J Clin Nutr, 2006). Studies have also observed that consuming larger quantities of whole grains, even in the form of pasta, has a protective role on health by helping to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (de Munter et al, PLoS Med, 2007). Therefore, given these considerations, unrefined products are considered protective for the heart and the cardiovascular system. As for the type, the most common pasta is undoubtedly pasta prepared from wheat, which contains gluten. Gluten, due to its protein nature, helps to slow the absorption of sugars. However, there are contraindications to gluten, but only in case of intolerance to this substance, in all other cases there are no problems in consuming products containing gluten. In case of gluten intolerance, always ask your doctor for advice, it is, in fact, possible to test pasta prepared with spelt or kamut flour that could be more tolerated. Alternatively, there are gluten-free pastas.
Al dente pasta
The pasta should be cooked al dente as an excessive cooking time cause a loss of nutrients that pass instead to water. In addition, if the pasta is cooked too much it swells excessively with water and this slows down and makes digestion difficult, since the digestive enzymes are diluted by losing effectiveness. Slower digestion also increases the risk of meteorism (Aufiero, the nutritional and therapeutic role of food).