Most Questions on Cooking Patient have no answers. In the interest of health, world debaters either bray or ignore one another about how to eat things, how much to eat of them or whether to eat them at all.
Take a food as simple, foundational and gratifying to my entire life as Italian pasta.
Pasta may have its origins in recognizable form in Sicily as far back as the time of Christ. (For stories, search History of Pasta on the web.) Raised by a healthy mom and dad, both parents themselves of Sicilian immigrants, I grew up eating it at least four times a week as a lunch or dinner, especially as spaghetti and later as penne and typically covered with meat, tomato sauce and cheese.
Until recently I never researched pasta flours for their materials, health or anything else; I chose them for the dishes they pleased, their shapely designs, their personal embrace of my Sicilian-American family identity, its culinary root. As I grew and cooked, I expanded among physical shapes — long and narrow or wide; short and round or curved — like angel hair, fettuccini, cavatelli, fusilli, farfalle, ziti, maccheroni (for the kids) and many more. I never made the pasta from scratch; I always bought to save time. But I did learn a list of favorite and often classic dishes: simple marinara; pesto with basil, pine nuts and cherry tomatoes; pasta abruzzese; spaghetti carbonara; spaghetti with clams; lasagna every so often. Pasta primavera and linguine with scallops were regulars at my college job and I took them into my home menu as well. Add parmesan or pecorino romano or ricotta.
But the quick, scientific explanation I am now learning is this: traditional Italian pasta is made with semolina flour, which is milled from durum wheat (a hard wheat that is high in the protein gluten, which gives this flour more elasticity and strength). Semolina is coarsely ground but always made from refined grain. Some critics say that traditional pasta is not a great source of fiber, and other types of pasta such as whole grain (or buckwheat, or veggie) are beginning to crowd the market because they may provide fiber and nutrients that traditional pasta lacks. Of course, carb-forbidding dietitians may curse all pasta types except maybe quinoa spaghetti, a gluten-free grain product. I have even found nutritional recipes that replace pasta with zucchini noodles that imitate pasta — which may taste fine, but they ain’t pasta!
I have noticed that most experts find it challenging to cover all the bases. There are simply too many unfamiliar versions of pasta, and perhaps some quiet belief that one food item (shhh!) is simply tastier than another. Some researchers offer clear distinction between whole wheat and whole grain, others do not. A researcher from Berkeley Wellness at University of California explains them but says no word about brown rice pasta, which sits alongside other pastas on my supermarket shelf.
Purely whole grain pastas are less common in my supermarket than whole wheats, which I assume is because the latter taste better by the people who compare them. The way I understand it, whole wheat is partially but not completely whole grain. The preference makes whole grain arguably more healthful but also less tasty. We must continue to push for improvement and I plan to try new dishes with every kind of pasta I can receive.
Perhaps the easier question is what to serve with pasta. Tomato-based sauces such as a simple marinara offer lycopene, a healthful carotenoid with antioxidant powers. (Antioxidants are chemicals that interact with and neutralize free radicals, thus preventing them from causing damage.) “Pasta Primavera” is pasta covered in a variety of vegetables. I eat lightly and infrequently on pasta dishes with heavy creams, which I always have anyway, despite their cultural familiarity in the Italian south especially.
Despite these health suggestions, and I will continue to look for them, I have never found historical or epidemiological evidence about pasta. While pasta has stayed the same for centuries, diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer have spread dramatically.