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If you’re eating for optimal metabolic health, pasta is typically one of the first things to go. After all, traditional pasta made with refined white flour can produce a pretty big blood-sugar spike.
But even beyond the glucose effects (which not everyone sees, especially if you pair the pasta with protein or fat), pasta is not exactly brimming with the healthy micronutrients your body needs. Fortunately, there are now a plethora of pasta alternatives made from more nutritious flours or straight vegetables. Here’s the skinny on next-gen noodles.
White-flour pasta –> Pasta alternatives
The Problem with Pasta
Pasta may not seem like processed food with its limited ingredients, but traditional pasta is made from refined flour. That means it’s gone through a process that removes the germ and bran from the grain (read: the parts that contain most of the fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals) and pulverizes the carbohydrate-rich part.
This refining process strips grains of many of their nutrients as well as their microbiome-friendly fiber. This allows your body to absorb the carbohydrates more quickly, potentially spiking your blood sugar. (Enriched pasta restores some of the lost nutrients, such as B vitamins, but misses many others.)
Not only that, but white flour is a gluten-rich food. In people whose bodies cannot tolerate gluten, a water-insoluble component of the gluten protein complex, called gliadin, may affect the gut’s intercellular tight junctions. Gliadin increases the release of a protein called zonulin, which breaks down the connection between colon cells and can lead to intestinal permeability, commonly referred to as leaky gut. In turn, that can lead to inflammation and impaired metabolic function. (Zonulin’s effect on intestinal permeability has been shown in cells from people without Celiac disease as well, but to a lesser degree.)
Eat This Instead
OK, it’s easy to argue that “zoodles” aren’t really a pasta alternative because they’re a vegetable transformed into a pasta-like shape. However, they deserve a spot at the top of this list because of how many nutrients they pack into traditionally low-on-nutrient pasta dishes.
Best way to use them: Squash “noodles” are often used as a stand-in for spaghetti in Italian dishes thanks to their mild flavor, making them an excellent base for sauce and other toppings. Try this zucchini “pasta” with tomato sauce or this zucchini pasta primavera. No veggie spiralizer? No problem. Bake a spaghetti squash and make a dish like this spaghetti squash alla vodka or even this spaghetti squash “pizza” bowl.
Also known as shirataki noodles, this pasta swap comes from the root of konjac, a vegetable found mainly in Asia. Their main carbohydrate is glucomannan fiber, a highly viscous soluble fiber—konjac noodles are mostly water (and come packaged wet in the refrigerated section). This fiber slows down digestion, which helps blunt any blood-sugar spike. Because of its slow digestion, glucomannan also feeds the good bacteria in your colon so they can produce short-chain fatty acids that reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of the gut satiety hormone peptide YY.
(If you see tofu shirataki noodles, it just means there’s added tofu, but this is unlikely to change its glycemic response.)
Best way to use them: Because of their high water content, these noodles feel slightly slimy. They also have a pretty pungent smell straight from the bag, so rinse well before eating. The texture can be a little strange in Italian-style pasta dishes, so you might want to try them in Asian noodle recipes that call for rich sauces and lots of other vegetable add-ins, like this dietitian-reviewed shirataki sesame noodles recipe or this paleo- and keto-friendly pad thai.
Hearts of palm pasta
This new noodle alternative has just one ingredient—hearts of palm, a vegetable harvested from the center (or the “heart”) of certain varieties of palm trees. One of the reasons we see it in noodle form from brands like Harvest Palm and Palmini is because its nutrient-dense core can become something that looks and tastes a lot like other veggie “noodles.” At just 15-20 calories per serving, 4 grams of carbs, and zero sugar, it shouldn’t impact your blood sugar.
Best way to use them: You’ll notice a slightly lemony, artichoke-like taste to this pasta alternative (which dissipates a little after soaking and rinsing). So it works well in lemon- and garlic-forward Mediterranean dishes. Try this Mediterranean “pasta” salad with avocado and basil. However, this noodle is versatile enough that you can use it in everything from Asian-inspired dishes like this peanut stir fry to Italian favorites like this keto carbonara.
Chickpea, lentil, and rice pasta
These dry pasta alternatives are made from flours made from chickpeas, lentils, and rice. That means they’re higher in carbohydrates than the others and can lead to a pronounced glucose effect. But they’re still a better choice than white-flour pasta thanks to their protein, fiber, and micronutrient content. Chickpea pasta will give you the most fiber at 13g per serving compared to ~3g for regular, lentil, and brown rice pasta.
Best way to use them: Think of these as a 1:1 replacement for any pasta recipe. While the texture and flavor may be slightly different from white-flour pasta, it’s close enough that you shouldn’t notice a big difference in everything from pasta salad and mac and cheese to pad thai and lo mein.