It once seemed a quintessential American meal, even if it was, like so many of our more delicious foods, an import. But in the United States, pasta, cheap and delicious, has fallen on hard times recently. Lumped together with other carbohydrates fueling the obesity epidemic, villainized by the Atkins and paleo diets, and indeed declared a threat to a growing number of Americans with gluten allergies, pasta has seemed at risk at losing its prize spot on American dinner tables.
Sales of dried pasta (the boxed kind you find in the store) in North America have fallen 6 percent since 2009. It has seen an even worse fate overseas. Sales in Germany are down 12 percent -- and are down most of all where people might expect it least, 25 percent, in Italy.
But it's in Italy, perhaps less surprisingly, where new evidence has arrived that perhaps pasta is not so harmful after all. In fact, the new research published this week in the journal Nutritional and Diabetes suggests eating pasta in controlled amounts is associated with a healthy lifestyle.
The Neuromed Institute of Pozzilli found that eating pasta in moderation is associated with a lower body-mass index, waist and hip circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. The study recommended deriving 10 percent of your daily calories from pasta.
“The calories contributed by pasta are not ‘bad’ calories,” Licia Iacoviello, who heads the Laboratory of Molecular and Nutritional Epidemiology at Neuromed, said in an interview. “Pasta should be considered as ‘good carbs,’ if consumed in moderation.”
Neuromed researchers drew this conclusion after conducting two surveys totaling more than 23,000 subjects, one group in the southern Italian region of Molise and the other across Italy. Researchers collected information on the subjects’ body measurements and nutrition patterns. The researchers said it was the first study that looked at the role of pasta in controlling one's weight on a traditional Mediterranean diet.
"Our findings show a negative association of pasta consumption with general and central obesity in two methodologically and geographically different, large Mediterranean populations," the researchers write. "Pasta as a product of cereals has been since ancient times consumed in the Mediterranean area and it has been considered as one of [Mediterranean diet's] traditional components, placed at the basis of the pyramid. Our comparative analysis of data from two different Mediterranean populations supports that pasta intake is negatively associated with both indexes of obesity status and prevalence of overweight and obesity."
Now, there are many open questions about how much this would apply to Americans, particularly if pasta is part of an otherwise unhealthy diet. The diet of people living in the Mediterranean, rich in olive oil, fish, fruits and vegetables, is well documented to have positive health effects. Just as well, researchers found that pasta consumption was linked to eating more tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, olive oil, seasoned cheese and rice. But they also noted that Italians had been reducing their overall reliance on typical Mediterranean foods in recent years, succumbing more to the American traditions of red meat and simple sugars.
"Pasta is a completely reasonable food," said New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who studied Mediterranean diets starting in the mid-1990s. "It depends on how much you eat and what you eat it with — a lot of pasta is going to be a weight problem."
This doesn’t justify every pasta decision, of course. Olive Garden's fettuccine alfredo dish, which totals 1,480 calories and provides nearly three times your daily need for saturated fat, is a no-no. And it's important to recognize that Americans' pasta serving size may be more than the recommended portion.
That's one cup for most people on a 2,000 calorie diet, Iacoviello said. A cup of pasta is about 200 calories, but physically active people could eat a bit more.
"This study is to try to defend pasta," Nestle said. "That's what this is about, but it shouldn't need defending — and it's too bad that it does."
Some pasta, though, is certainly a lot less healthy than others. Pasta that is made with refined or white flour has a longer shelf-life and smoother texture, but it's missing key nutrients, compared with a healthier counterpart, such as whole-wheat pasta. That kind of pasta contains flour made from all three parts of the wheat kernel -- bran, germ and endosperm -- and thus contains iron, phosphorus, protein and magnesium.
Fiber is one of the biggest nutrients we lose when we eat refined products instead of whole grain. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adult women consume 25 grams per day of fiber, while men should have 38 grams. A 200-calorie serving of Barilla whole-grain penne, for example, offers more than six grams; its refined cousin has two.
Along with normalizing bowel movements, fiber-heavy foods can be helpful in weight loss. Foods with lots of fiber tends to have fewer calories for the same volume of food. That's key for maintaining a healthy body-mass index and diet, said Linda Van Horn, a nutrition professor at Northwestern University’s medical school.
“You feel fuller when you've consumed those kinds of food,” Van Horn said. “That's why any high-fiber whole grain provides this sense of fullness that helps you to reduce your total intake of calories.”
A well-known survey published earlier this year of nearly 45,000 Americans’ eating habits shows an inverse relationship between whole-grain consumption and body-mass index. Whole grains have been demonstrated to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, mortality from all causes and stroke.
That serving of Barilla whole-grain pasta also has nearly a quarter of your daily need for iron and magnesium, 28 percent of your needed phosphorus and eight grams of protein — all for two grams of sugar, 1.7 grams of fat and no sodium. Barilla's website lists none of those minerals for its white-flour variety.
Neuromed's pasta study did not differentiate between different types of grains, Iacoviello said. But Van Horn said that Italian pastas tended to be higher in whole grains than American varieties.
Grains are key in the Mediterranean diet as a source of fiber, protein and nutrients — but it’s only a component of it. Typically, at nine servings a day, fruits and vegetables are the foundation of the diet. Pasta can provide the satiety that veggies can’t, though.
“Eating pasta, which is a mainstay of Italian food, is not a ‘high calorie, gonna make you fat’ kind of food, as much as it is a mean towards balancing your caloric intake and compromising your satiety,” Van Horn said. “You’re keeping or losing your weight by consuming that kind of food.”