With low-carb diets stalking the land, a distrust of all carbohydrates -- especially bread, potatoes, rice and pasta -- has taken hold.
Now pasta is fighting back.
And nutritionally it has every right to, according to a consensus of scientists at a conference held in Rome two weeks ago. Organized by the Boston food think tank the Oldways Preservation Trust and funded by both Italian and U.S. pasta manufacturers as well as the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium, the conference attracted scientists, physicians, chefs and other pasta experts from North America, Europe and Australia.
The conference's declaration was simple: Pasta is digested more slowly than those other starches. Its glycemic index value (more about that later) is significantly less, so it shouldn't be grouped with other starchy carbohydrates that dieters fear.
The three-day conference was held in a hotel in the suburbs of Rome, but the shadow that fell over it was the Atkins Diet, not St. Peter's Basilica. Participants often felt obliged to refer to that extremely low-carbohydrate approach as a point of comparison.
"Atkins has traditionally treated all carbohydrates alike," said David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital Boston. "But there are more healthy carbohydrates and less healthy carbohydrates. We don't have to throw out the baby with the bath water."
One after another, scientists and doctors acknowledged that the currently fashionable low-carb diets can result in quick weight loss but that a significant amount of that loss is water and therefore presents a short-term solution.
Moreover, they stressed that the long-term safety of extreme low-carb eating has not been determined, that the diets tend to be high in saturated fat and deprive the body of important nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, seeds, nuts and cereal grains -- such as the ones used to make pasta.
Not platters full of pasta but pasta eaten in appropriate portion sizes. And it's even better, they said, if the pasta is eaten with some of its traditional accompaniments such as olive oil, tomatoes and other vegetables, moderate amounts of protein, beans, legumes and nuts.
The conference's focus on pasta is in line with the eating patterns of the Mediterranean Diet, which Oldways espouses. That diet is not a restrictive plan but rather a way of eating characterized by the consumption of olive oil; fruits and vegetables; legumes, nuts and seeds; grains, especially whole grains; moderate amounts of dairy and fish; little meat; a daily glass of wine with meals; and daily exercise. It's an approach to food -- and, for that matter, to life -- that's hard to fault.
Even so, a few months ago, when I was invited to moderate some panels at the conference (which paid my airfare and hotel, as it paid the fees of the other speakers and panelists), I wondered about its premise. My own food choices are in line with a balanced diet that eliminates no food group. And I have no doubt that weight loss really is a result of eating less and exercising more. But it had never occurred to me that I could justify pasta as anything other than an indulgence.
Besides, it's been hard to shake off the seductive impact of the low-carb way of eating. The diets are easy to understand, they promise quick results and they're marketed as science: Eliminate as many carbs as possible, its proponents say, your body will metabolize more efficiently, and you'll lose weight.
Could it be that pasta was really a healthful food choice, that it breaks down and enters the bloodstream differently from other starchy carbohydrates and can therefore be included regularly in a sensible diet?
Absolutely, said the 34 scientists worldwide who have already signed the consensus report from the Rome conference, including several who are at the forefront of work with the glycemic index and the glycemic code -- concepts that are at the heart of extremely low-carbohydrate diets.
The glycemic index is a different way of assessing how carbs perform in the body than the traditional distinction between simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. It was first put forward in 1981 by a group of scientists led by David Jenkins, a professor of nutrition at the University of Toronto.
The glycemic index ranks foods containing carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to their effect on blood sugar levels per gram of carbohydrate. Foods that are digested rapidly and release glucose into the bloodstream quickly are known as high-GI foods. Foods that are digested more slowly and release glucose more slowly, are known as low-GI foods.
"And pasta, with its dense compact structure, is a low-glycemic-index food," said Jenkins, a co-chairman of the conference. "And it's even lower if it's eaten with beans, chick peas and other low-glycemic-index vegetables."
Pasta is not the only starch with a low-GI value. Though they're rarely craved as much as pasta, other traditional foods, such as barley, legumes, whole-grain breads and steel-cut oats are in that category as well. However, the contemporary diet is full of refined starches with a high-GI value -- rice, breads, breakfast cereals, crackers and chips, cookies and other sweets, and many of them are manufactured with added sugars.
In modern times, more and more starchy carbohydrates are highly refined and hit the bloodstream quickly, which is not desirable, according to Jennie Brand Miller, a human nutrition professor at the University of Sydney in Australia and one of the authors of the recently revised "The New Glucose Revolution: The Authoritative Guide to the Glycemic Index" (Marlow & Co., $15.95) and several other books on the subject. A diet heavy in such refined carbohydates can be predictive of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and possibly certain cancers, said Brand Miller.
Several scientists at the conference also work with a calculation called the glycemic load, a figure that takes into account both the number of carbohydrates per serving of a food and its ranking on the glycemic index. It's a useful tool because it factors in how much food is actually eaten. (The glycemic index is a measure of the type or quality of the carbohydrate. The glycemic load is the product of the quality and the quantity.)
"A low-glycemic-load diet is the perfect compromise between a low-fat diet on the one hand and Atkins on the other," said David Ludwig. "A low-glycemic-load diet has very similar benefits without the same extreme deprivation that's necessary for an extremely low-carbohydrate diet. You can eat abundantly from nature -- fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and legumes -- with moderate amounts of low-glycemic grain products such as pasta. This diet should provide good satiety, and with much more flexibility and safety."