Most Improved Pasta

By MARIAN BURROS  New York Times 5/18/05

IT is not my imagination. Whole-wheat pasta tastes much better than it did 10 years ago, when all of it was brittle and grainy. If consumers partook in a blind taste test today, most would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a dish of the best brands of whole-wheat pasta and those made with white flour.

Technology, for once not the enemy of good food, has figured out how to give whole-wheat pasta a texture quite similar to what most of us are used to, one that is slithery and that allows the pasta to slip down the throat deliciously and effortlessly.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, when we talked about healthy, nutritious food, the taste and texture were not as good as they are today," said Seth Mendelson, publisher of Grocery Headquarters Magazine, a monthly trade publication that covers the supermarket industry.

"Today, more money is going into research and development, and they have fine-tuned the mix," he said. "The demand for healthier products increases, so suppliers spend money to give people what they want. Many companies are introducing better products because they see an opportunity to make money."

These better-tasting products are healthier because the nutrients in whole-wheat flour are significantly better for you than what is left once flour is refined. Whole-wheat pasta contains the entire grain seed, usually referred to as the kernel. The kernel has three components: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran and the germ contain a host of vitamins, minerals and fiber, some of which are lost in the refining process. So a two-ounce serving of whole-wheat pasta can contain five to seven grams of fiber, more than a typical serving of old-fashioned oatmeal. Refined pasta has only about two grams.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

FIBER PACKED: A 2-ounce serving of whole-wheat pasta has 5 to 7 grams of fiber. Pasta made with refined flour has 2 grams.

Food manufacturers of whole-grain foods - think of all the good-tasting whole-grain breads that have recently appeared - are making pasta available in dozens of shapes and sizes, including lasagna, linguine, rotini and fusilli. They are making them not only with whole wheat, but also with spelt, brown rice, buckwheat, kamut and farro.

Give a little bit of credit to Atkins, more to the South Beach Diet, for making people aware of complex carbohydrates. In response, pasta makers began producing low-carb pastas, generally by adding fiber in a variety of forms. Some of them were inedible, but some of them were simply whole-wheat pastas.

In 2002 11 whole-grain pastas were introduced, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database. In the first quarter of this year there were 28 new ones.

De Cecco, which is the largest seller of imported pasta in the United States, reports a substantial increase in sales of the whole-wheat line, which has been available here for 10 years. "Sales of whole wheat are doubling, and we didn't do anything to promote it and we didn't change the packaging," said Alfredo D'Innocenzo, managing director of Prodotti Mediterranei Inc., the North American importer.

According to ACNielsen LabelTrends, overall spaghetti sales in stores other than Wal-Mart dropped to $418 million between April 2004 and April 2005 from $434 million in the same period ending in 2001. Whole-grain spaghetti makes up just a fraction of the market, but its sales have risen to $26.5 million from almost $8 million in 2001. Overall sales for all categories of whole-wheat pasta have increased to over $53 million from almost $14 million for the same period. At the same time, overall sales for all categories of pasta, including whole grain, decreased to $2.71 billion from $2.86 billion.

Wal-Mart does not provide sales figures for its Heartland whole-wheat pasta, but the American Italian Pasta Company, which produces the Heartland brand, among others, says its sales have also increased.

Keely Wood, United States sales coordinator for Bionaturae, an Italian organic pasta maker, said that Pasta Pomodoro, a chain of restaurants in California and Arizona that is owned in part by Wendy's International Inc., is using Bionaturae's whole-wheat pasta. "Their orders keep on creeping up since they began buying it seven months ago," she said.

Could the increase in whole-grain products and sales mean the food industry is willing to reform and make more healthful foods? More likely it means that if the public demands it, no matter what it is, food manufacturers will make it.

"Consumers are looking for ways to improve their health," Mr. Mendelson said. "No. 1 is the taste factor; the other is perceived value in terms of nutrition. They want products that are healthier for them, but if the product doesn't taste good enough, consumers will abandon it."

When the new dietary guidelines for Americans were announced by the federal government in January, recommending at least three ounces of whole grains a day, the public had already begun to abandon low-carb diets because many found they did not work.

"People have decided to go back to carbs," said Bridget Goldschmidt, managing editor of Progressive Grocer, a trade publication for the supermarket industry. "But they are going to what they perceive to be healthier carbs. Whole grains have integrity."

I tasted about 35 dried whole-grain pastas made not only with whole wheat but with farro, spelt, quinoa, rice and corn, and even artichoke flour - and 10 fresh pastas made with a combination of whole wheat and refined durum wheat. I found a number of dried flat pastas, as in fettuccini, linguine and spaghetti, were easy to recommend. Most extruded pastas like rotini, penne and fusilli still needed some work.

Pastas made with whole grains other than wheat are useful for people who are allergic to wheat, but they do not taste as good and often have an unpleasant texture. On the other hand, with enough full-bodied sauce, these flaws may disappear. But whole-wheat pasta provides as good a serving of fiber as any other pasta; you may as well stick with it.

That is, of course, unless you want to pair it with a Chinese or Thai sauce. Then the pastas made with brown rice are perfect. They taste like Asian rice noodles. But I don't recommend them with a ragł. In addition, brown rice pasta has only about two grams of fiber a serving, about the same as refined-wheat pasta. Not surprisingly, the taste and texture of pasta made from corn flour, with spelt or quinoa, bear little similarity to those of pasta made with wheat.

I liked some of the fresh whole-wheat pastas, too, but all of them were a combination of whole-wheat flour and refined-wheat flour. None of them provided nutrition information, so there was no way to know how much fiber they contained, or, for that matter, the ratio of whole wheat to refined wheat.

It was no surprise that a wonderful ragł worked well with these pastas, as did other sauces, like a marinara with a tomato base. But I also created a far more delicate asparagus and petit pois sauce, which was excellent.

Lasagna was not quite as good as the best brands of the other types of flat pasta, but with a rich sauce it would be fine. There was not as much choice among the extruded pastas. I found one brand each of fusilli, elbows and penne rigate that was almost as smooth as the flat pasta. The others needed work.

After trying whole-wheat pastas off and on for years and always going back to white-flour pasta, I am now a confirmed convert to whole-wheat spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, capellini and angel hair. I've even made my favorite macaroni and cheese recipe with whole-wheat elbows, and everyone still asked for seconds.

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