di Sara Baer-Sinnot

Today’s healthy pasta meals have roots that stretch back to ancient times. Thousands of years ago, people ground wheat, mixed it with water to make a wheat paste, dried it, and then boiled it to go with meals. Today’s consumers welcome pasta to their tables for its versatility and convenience, just as nutrition scientists recognize pasta meals for their place in healthy eating patterns, such as the “gold standard” Mediterranean Diet and the traditional Latin American diet.

What makes a healthy pasta meal?

A healthy pasta meal is truly the sum of its parts, and features two key factors: what you pair with your pasta, and how much pasta you eat in a meal. Pasta is an ideal partner for healthy foods and ingredients such as vegetables, beans, and herbs (whole or in sauce form) and extra virgin olive oil. Nuts, fish, and small amounts of meat or cheese can also be added for extra flavor and protein. Pasta’s versatility allows for almost endless preparations. Healthy pasta meals are a balance of pleasure and health!

In 2002, after the publication of a Sunday New York Times Magazine article, “What if Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat,” the low-carb Atkins Diet became all the rage.  As no-carb, low-carb diet crazes swept through countries around the world, pasta was unfortunately added to a laundry list of other foods to avoid. It was suggested that carbohydrates, such as bread, potatoes, rice, and even fruit should be eliminated in order to lose or maintain weight. However, like other fad diets that preach an all-or-nothing tactic with specific foods, “no-carb, low-carb” diets don’t work.  Rather, pasta does not make anyone fat, and there are so many reasons to love pasta and pasta meals, and to make them a part of family meals.

Oldways, a US nonprofit food and nutrition education organization best known for creating the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid with the Harvard School of Public Health and for the Whole Grain Stamp, was concerned about this rebirth of the low-carb, no-carb diet craze.  We believed so strongly in the power of the pasta meal (both health and great taste) that in 2004 we began a science-based campaign to tell the Truth About Pasta!

In 2004, Oldways brought nutrition scientists from Europe and the US together in Rome for a scientific and media conference to develop the first Healthy Pasta Meal Scientific Consensus Statement.  Since then, working with the International Pasta Organization (IPO), Oldways and an IPO Scientific Advisory Committee has updated the Scientific Consensus Statement on the Healthy Pasta Meal twice – first in 2010 at the IV World Pasta Congress in Rio de Janeiro, and again in 2015 at the V World Pasta Congress in Milan, Italy.

In 2015, 19 scientists from 8 countries signed the Scientific Consensus Statement, validating the scientific research and common sense that this document represents.  Since then – at World Pasta Day (October 25) celebrations in 2016 in Moscow and in 2017 in Sao Paulo, eight additional scientists from 3 countries (Russia, Brazil and Turkey) have added their names to the statement, once again reaffirming pasta’s place in an overall healthy diet.

The Scientific Consensus Statement, with its key points in bold, states:

  1. Total Diet is important. Scientific research increasingly supports the importance of total diet, rather than individual foods.
  2. Pasta is a a key component of traditional diets around the world. Pasta is a key component of many of the world’s traditional healthy eating patterns, such as the scientifically-proven Mediterranean Diet. Most plant-based dietary patterns help prevent and slow progression of major chronic diseases and confer greater health benefits than current Western dietary patterns.
  3. Pasta does not make people fat. Many clinical trials confirm that excess calories, and not carbohydrates, are responsible for obesity. Diets successful in promoting weight loss can emphasize a range of healthy carbohydrates, protein and fat. All these three macronutrients, in balance, are essential for designing a healthy, individualized diet anyone can follow for their whole life. Moreover, very low carbohydrate diets may not be safe, especially in the long term.
  4. Pasta is satiating and keeps you fuller longer. A pasta meal can be moderate in its calorie content, assuming the portion is correct and the dressing-topping is not calorie-rich.
  5. Pasta has a low-glycemic index. At a time when obesity and diabetes have a high prevalence around the world, pasta meals and other low-Glycemic Index foods may help control blood sugar and weight especially in overweight people. Glycemic Index is a factor that impacts the healthfulness of carbohydrate-rich foods.  There is a beneficial effect in the way pasta is made. The process of manufacturing reduces its glycemic response. Whole grain pasta, which provides more fiber, is also a good choice.
  6. Pasta is affordable and easy to find in stores. Pasta is an affordable, healthy choice available in almost all societies. Promoting the affordability and accessibility of pasta meals can help overcome the misperception that healthy foods are too expensive.
  7. Pasta helps increase consumption of other healthy foods. Healthy pasta meals are a delicious way to eat more vegetables, legumes and other healthy foods often under-consumed.  Pasta is a way to introduce other Mediterranean diet foods (other cultural traditions), especially for children and adolescents.
  8. Pasta is like a canvas – it fits with all cultural traditions. Pasta meals are enjoyed in cultural traditions worldwide. As they are like a canvas, they are versatile and easily adaptable to national/regional seasonal ingredients.
  9. Most people should not choose a gluten-free diet. The general population can eat pasta and should not choose a gluten-free product if not affected by a gluten-related disorder correctly diagnosed.  For those with gluten sensitivities or allergies, or celiac disease, there are gluten-free alternatives.
  10. Pasta is a sustainable food. Pasta is a simple plant-based food, and has a low environmental impact.
  11. Pasta consumption is suitable for people who do physical exercise and particularly in sports.  Pasta, as with other cereal foods, provides carbohydrates and is also a source of protein. Pasta may be used alone or lightly seasoned before training or combined with other foods after training, in order to improve physical performance.  High protein and low carbohydrate diets are discouraged in active people.
  12. Health professionals should educate consumers about healthy, balanced pasta meals. Doctors, nutritionists and other health professionals should educate the consumer to choose varied and balanced pasta meals for good health.

IPO and Oldways are continuing their efforts to debunk incorrect myths about Pasta.  For more information about pasta and health, see the IPO and Oldways websites for key messages; health summaries; a webinar; recipes, brochure, children’s cooking curriculum; and tips; and infograms.  Also sign up for a free monthly newsletter and Ted Ed Lesson appropriately named, The Truth About Pasta!

Sara BaerSinnott is President of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization, improving public health through cultural food traditions and lifestyles.