The good news: If you’re trying to find alternatives to regular wheat pasta, plenty of choices are available.
The bad news: A taste test revealed that some of them are unpalatable, either because of taste or texture or both. And those that fared the best are nearly devoid of nutrients.
Christine Bergman, a professor of food science and nutrition at UNLV, said the rise of pasta alternatives is being driven by people who want to avoid gluten and/or carbohydrates. The craze, she said, has taken her back to the ’80s, when she did her master’s thesis on the topic.
“It’s kind of fun to see how far the technology has come, and that what I was doing is actually being used,” she said.
These days, Americans are looking to other cultures when considering pastas.
“We’ve traditionally just followed the Italians, using durum wheat,” Bergman said. “In Japan, noodles are made out of buckwheat and rice and all these different things. We’re becoming much more aware of other ethnic traditions.”
Thus the availability of shirataki noodles, made from the konjac yam. They’re available fresh or freeze-dried and they contain few carbohydrates, few to no calories and little to no cholesterol. But they’re also low in fiber and protein.
In terms of nutrients, you’re not going to get a whole lot,” said Kathryn Spada, a clinical dietitian at University Medical Center.
“If you’re going to be replacing a wheat product such as wheat pasta, you want to try replacing it with something that’s going to be whole grain,” such as brown-rice pasta, Spada said. “Whole wheat has more fiber because you’re going to have the whole grain. It’s also good for nutrients such as phosphorus, and you have some vitamins in there. And a lot of our wheat products are fortified with iron and folic acid, so if you cut out those products and don’t replace it with something that has those nutrients in it, you could be missing them.”
Spada said lentil pasta is higher in protein and fiber, and it has another advantage.
“The lentils are going to be a bit more dense, so you’re not going to have to eat as much,” she said. Chickpea pasta also is higher in protein than other choices, she noted.
Bergman said pasta made from legumes, such as lentils or beans, are a good choice for diabetics, because the carbohydrates in them will raise blood sugar more slowly.
If you’re wondering why few of the choices are close to the flavor and texture of regular wheat pasta, Bergman said finding a close substitute isn’t easy.
“Some of the traditional processes have really had to be worked on, because there really is something very special about the proteins in wheat in making noodles,” she said. “They’re stretchy; they’re like a rubber band. It’s not an easy process. It’s the drying process of creating a shelf-stable alternative that’s really the challenge.”
If you’d prefer to go with shirataki, Spada said the nutritional component can be augmented by serving it with lean protein and lots of vegetables.
Or, you could go with a purely vegetable alternative. Ken Torres, executive chef of Santa Fe Station, said a favorite method is to cut zucchini or yellow squash on a mandoline (or you could use a vegetable peeler or spiralizer) to create pasta-like ribbons.
“It’s nice and colorful,” he said.
He also likes to cut a spaghetti squash in half, scoop out the spaghetti-like strings and saute them with tomato sauce and vegetables. Then he returns it to the shell and bakes it; the dish can even be served from the shell.
Or, Torres said, slice eggplant really thin and use instead of noodles in lasagna. Or cut beets into thin slices, sandwich them around some ricotta and you have a vegetable ravioli.
“You can do cauliflower, chop it up, saute it and add cheese to it like a cauliflower mac and cheese,” Torres said. “Do it like a casserole and then you can bake it in the oven and get a nice crust on it.”
“There’s a lot of alternatives nowadays,” he said. “Of course, the vegetable way would be the way to go.”
Spada cautioned against cavalierly abandoning something that may actually be good for you.
“Unless you have a wheat intolerance, where you need to be wheat-free,” she said, “there’s really no need to avoid wheat.”