The next time you venture into the pasta section of the supermarket, bring a stopwatch. Because without one, you just might spend the entire afternoon deciphering the labels of the eight zillion varieties that now sit happily on most store shelves if you care about finding one that's actually good for you and not made junk.
Or you can save yourself major time and headaches with this handy guide on how to pick the healthiest pasta for you.
What it's made with: Like white pasta, it's made from durable, high-protein durum wheat. But whole-wheat pasta boasts the entire wheat grain, including the nutrient- and fiber-rich bran and germ.
Who should eat it: As long as you can tolerate wheat, pick this kind over white, since it's got way more fiber and protein and is not made with refined grains.
Good to know: Not all whole-wheat pastas are created equal. If you thought one brand was too tough or crumbly, try another before swearing off the stuff completely.
What it's made with: Like white pasta, high-fiber pasta is usually made from refined durum wheat (read: not a whole grain). But it's got extra fiber added back in—usually from whole durum wheat—to make it more nutritious and filling, says Washington D.C.-based culinary nutritionist Jessica Swift, RD.
Who should eat it: Think wheat pasta tastes like cardboard but still want something slightly healthier than white? Try this.
Good to know: Any pasta labeled as "high fiber" has to pack at least 20% of your daily fiber.
This label simply means that a pasta was made with more than one type of grain—it doesn't necessarily mean, however, that all those grains are whole. Usually, multigrain pastas combine wheat with other ground grains like barley, and/or flours made from legumes like lentils or from seeds like flaxseeds. Multigrain pasta can also be made with a blend of gluten-free grains, like rice, quinoa, or amaranth.
Who should eat it: Opt for this one if you're not a fan of whole-wheat pasta's nuttier flavor and chewier texture, but still want to reap its health benefits—that is, if you choose a whole-grain variety.
Good to know: To make sure you're getting whole grains, look on the label to make sure all flours to have the word whole before it, "whole wheat flour" or "whole brown rice flour.
Who should eat it: Gluten-free eaters, or anyone who's dealing with a sensitive stomach, can benefit from this one, as rice tends to be better tolerated by people with digestion issues, says Swift.
Good to know: Rice pasta tends to absorb more water than other gluten-free pastas, and its naturally softer texture can easily turn to mush if you cook it too long. Start checking it a few minutes before the package directions say it's supposed to be done. When you have a choice, opt for brown-rice flour pasta, which has more fiber and protein.
Who should eat it: This is great for gluten-free eaters who want a chewy, nutrient-dense pasta and for anyone simply looking a healthier, nutty-tasting pasta that packs a protein punch, says Swift.
Good to know: Quinoa pasta is sturdier than most other gluten-free pastas, so it works well in gluten-free pasta salads, and stands up to strong sauces.
What it's made of: Most spelt pastas are made from whole-grain spelt, an ancient variety of wheat that some people say is easier to digest than its modern counterpart. Spelt pasta can be made from refined spelt, too, so be sure to check the ingredient list for the word "whole."
Who should eat it: Try this if you have digestion issues that aren't gluten-related or simply want a nuttier, more flavorful whole-grain pasta option.
Good to know: Spelt might be an alternative grain, but it still contains gluten. If you're a gluten-free eater, steer clear.
Some buckwheat noodles are made from 100% buckwheat, a seed-like, gluten-free grain. Others contain added wheat flour, so if you're eating gluten-free or care about whole grains, check the label.
Who should eat it: Buckwheat has a distinct, toasty flavor that's especially good in Asian-style noodle dishes like stir-fries, soups, and salads. It's great for gluten-free eaters and wheat eaters alike—just check the ingredients list to make sure the package you're buying is right for your diet.
Good to know: Like rice pasta, buckwheat pasta can go from perfectly cooked to overly soft in no time. Start checking it 3 to 4 minutes after you start cooking, regardless of what the package instructions say.
Beans or legumes, such as lentils, black beans, or chickpeas.
Who should eat it: Anyone looking for a nutrient-dense pasta that'll keep you full for hours can benefit from these bean beauties. Most bean-based pastas, which are gluten-free, pack more fiber and protein than any type of whole-grain pasta, Swift says.
Good to know: Despite what you might think, bean-based pastas don't actually taste "beany" at all. Flavor- and texture-wise, they're similar to whole-wheat pasta.
Flavored (like spinach or tomato)
Don't let the mention of vegetables fool you. Even though a tiny amount of veggies are added to these white or whole-wheat pastas for color, it's not actually enough to make a difference, nutritionally.
Who should eat it: If you can tolerate gluten and crave the slightly veg-like taste, eating flavored pasta is fine. But pick a whole-wheat version—and don't fool yourself into thinking that you're actually getting a serving of vegetables.
Good to know: If you decide to buy, check the label first. Some flavored pastas contain food dye to make their color more vibrant, says Swift.
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