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Pasta may be pleasurable and it doesn’t have to be unhealthy

Comfort food: That is the claim to fame of good ole pasta.

Large, small, flat, round, tubular, shell-like – there is a shape for every culinary purpose and mood. Thanks to technology, not only do we have different shapes of pasta, we have pasta from sources other than their traditional durum or semolina ancestor (types of wheat). There are rice (white or brown), corn, quinoa, soy, tapioca and other grain-based pastas. These alternative sources can be especially helpful for those who avoid wheat and gluten.

As age-old and delicious as pasta is, it can present a little bit of a challenge for the health-conscious person. Considering the amount of calories per serving, there is not much high-quality nutrition. One serving of normal spaghetti offers you 200 calories, 7 grams protein, 41 grams total carbs, and 2 grams fiber. Ultimately, you mostly get carbohydrates, very little fiber and none or little protein. Also the B-vitamins that were stripped away from the grain have to be added back in (and not all companies do).

I am not trying to demonize pasta by any means. There can be a place for it in a well-balanced diet. However, if you are looking to eat it with frequency and/or are interested in exploring optimal nutrition, I encourage you to widen your lens on pasta sources. Instead of looking at grain-based pastas, consider  those based on beans, lentils, or vegetables.

Bean and lentil pastas typically come from black beans, chickpeas, adzuki beans, soybeans and red or green lentils. These can be procured from health-food type stores or online. Admittedly, the price for these is higher than regular pastas.

Veggie noodles can be made one of two ways: cooking up spaghetti squash (which naturally shreds into noodle-like strings) or by using a tool that creates spiral noodles. These “zoodles” are known as such because they commonly are made from running zucchini (or other summer squash) through a machine called a Spiralizer or Veggetti. These spiralizer tools range from small, handheld versions to ones more ornate in structure and in function. The price rises with the complexity of the toll but it typically starts very reasonably.

The “pros” to these healthier pasta noodles are in the significantly higher protein, fiber, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Typically, the total carbohydrate content is significantly lower. Because the carbs are accompanied by the protein and fiber, the overall effect on your blood sugar is moderated. Since blood sugars are not spiked, weight, appetite, moods and inflammation are more likely to be kept in check. Overall, they can help your health rather than detract from it. This is especially the case if using fresh zucchini to make your noodles!

But the difference in traditional pasta and “non-traditional” pastas isn’t just in the nutrient value. There ARE differences in the taste, texture, cook time and the ability to store/reheat. Oftentimes these non-traditional pastas require less time on the stove. “Zoodles” in fact, can be eaten raw or lightly sautéed or steamed in the microwave.

The change in texture is often the biggest hang-up when introducing non-traditional pastas and often the reason why people say they “don’t like them.” This is real and legitimate but doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

Here are some suggestions for incorporating healthier, non-traditional pastas into your kitchen this summer:

Switch up your sauces. Non-traditional pastas might seem boring because your sauce is boring.

Try new sauces or even new seasonings. Instead of plain marinara sauce, buy a better-flavored one or use a pesto or herb-based “green” sauce. Experiment with a favorite “go-to” sauce you love (you know, the kind that you find yourself dumping onto everything you eat anyway!).

These days there is also a wealth of “simmer sauces” on the market that you cook meat/meat alternatives in. Just cook your meat/meat alternative and pour your simmer sauces over your noodle of choice (it certainly simplifies your meal!). Instead of a fancy or store-bought sauce, you can even go minimalistic, with olive or avocado oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder.

Add roasted veggies. Cook up that produce from your garden or farmers market and load your pasta dish with it. Roasted vegetables are particularly great in pastas and add a sweet and savory flavor. With all the different textures that the veggies bring, you might not notice a change of the pasta’s texture as much.

Change up the temp. You may find you prefer certain non-traditional pastas hot rather than cold and vice versa. Hot pastas can extenuate certain textures or flavors (like spice), while cold pastas may highlight a different flavor. Temperature not only alters flavor but texture as well. So play around with what pasta-alternatives offer the best flavor with your sauces and the best texture.

Resources – brands/tools to try. Sometimes, when venturing on new food adventures, it is helpful to have a place to start.

Following are some brands to try. I am NOT paid to offer these recommendations. I am simply giving you a list of brands to try based on my own experience and those of fellow foodies and dietitians have recommended.

They include Cybil’s Free To Eat Pasta, Tolerant Pasta (green lentil is my favorite), Pow pasta and Explore cuisine.

Websites/tools. For recipe and the patented “spiralizer” check out www.inspiralized.com. For the low-priced, hand-held zoodle maker check out the Veggetti tool online.

This summer, get creative while adding some healthier pastas to your table. Try these quick pasta sauce recipes on your next pasta dish!

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She lives in Lebanon with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.