"No more eating," said chef Davide Megna of Amici Miei in Rockville, laying down his fork and looking a bit queasy.
We had just finished trying eight brands of whole-wheat spaghetti, and Megna, whose restaurant features handmade pasta, had reached his limit. When the photographer asked him to pose with just one more forkful, his expression resembled that of a kid being asked to eat a plate of Brussels sprouts.
Whole-wheat pasta takes some getting used to. It has two to three times as much fiber as regular pasta, which is why it's so good for us, but some brands Megna and I tried tasted better than others. Even generously doused with long-simmered meat sauce and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, the strong wheat flavor and tough texture of some of the spaghettis were hard to swallow. Literally.
Whole grains are the trend du jour in the food industry, which explains the explosion of dark brown, wheaty pastas in supermarkets. (The mania for multi-grains has even reached the cookie aisle, with last week's introduction by Kraft Foods of whole-grain versions of its Chips Ahoy and Fig Newton cookies.) Sales of whole-grain pasta have tripled in the past four years, according to sales figures from ACNielsen, so consumers are evidently taking to heart the federal government's advice to increase the amount of whole grains in our diets.
"We need more fiber in our diet and whole-wheat pasta is one way to accomplish that," said New York dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Dietitian Elisa Zied, who has a private practice in New York, makes these suggestions to her patients who object to whole wheat pasta's strong flavor and chewier texture:
* Mix some whole wheat with regular pasta and load them up with vegetables and sauce.
* Look for different shapes instead of spaghetti. Sometimes penne or fusilli have a better texture.
* Try Barilla Plus, an enriched multi-grain pasta that uses a blend of grain and legume flours to provide high fiber without an overly strong flavor.
For our taste test, we used whole-wheat spaghetti. We picked brands we found in supermarkets such as Safeway, Giant and Harris Teeter, as well as products from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
We asked Megna to help us judge because he has a passion for pasta. He grew up in Turin in northern Italy and went to culinary school there. He came to the United States in 1994 and worked for nine years in Washington with chef Roberto Donna before opening his own place last December. He had never tried whole-wheat spaghetti before this taste test. After we finished, he admitted he probably never will again.
BEST OF THE BUNCH
Bionaturae Organic: Texture "a little better" than all the others -- not so tough or crumbly. Flavor not as strong. Good appearance in the bowl. Megna's verdict: "Not that bad."
Trader Joe's Organic: Good appearance in the bowl -- strands not too stiff. Flavor doesn't overwhelm the sauce. Firm texture. "I don't dislike it too much," said Megna.
De Cecco: Very firm texture; strands appear stiff in the bowl. On the plus side: Flavor not overly strong when combined with a sturdy sauce.
Westbrae Organic: "Strange, really weird consistency." Overly strong wheaty flavor -- needs "a lot of sauce."
Hodgson Mill: Bad texture -- "tough, almost crumbly." Bad flavor. "Oh my God," Megna said, his mouth full. "I don't know if I can swallow this."
De Boles: Texture not as chewy as some others, but an unpleasantly strong flavor, even with a lot of sauce. "I would never sell something that tastes and looks as bad as this," Megna said.
IN LAST PLACE
Ronzoni: Awful flavor. Texture not too bad, but can't make up for the flavor.
Annie's Homegrown: The worst, both in flavor and texture. The strands are crumbly and break easily. Grainy flavor is overwhelmingly strong.