The best low carb pasta options

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2015, 4:56pm

A bowl of pasta isn't the villain it used to be. The rise of alternative pasta shows how hard it is for pasta lovers to give up their macaroni, and also reflects increasing food allergy awareness and healthy eating alternatives.

For years, health and fitness experts have targeted simple or easily digestible carbohydrates as the leading cause in rising obesity rates. Grouped with cakes, cookies, white bread and candy, pasta has often been thought of as being high in energy but low in fibre and nutrients, an "unhealthy" guilty pleasure.

Popular yet controversial diets such as the Atkins Diet, which ignited the "low carb craze" in the 1990s, and later the Paleo Diet, have had adverse effects on the pasta industry.In the US, pasta sales have dropped 1 per cent to 2 per cent annually since 2003.

Only recently have pasta makers found new ways to vindicate noodles as a healthy, affordable and simple food.

Alternative pastas allow consumers to enjoy a bowl of pasta without fear of consuming empty calories or flaring gluten intolerances. In Hong Kong, gluten-free and alternative pastas can be found on a growing number of restaurant menus and in food stores.

"Many people want to make changes and live healthier, but give up pasta or a bowl of Asian-style noodles? Many people just don't have the willpower to do it," says Moosa Alissa, co-owner of the organic convenience store, JustGreen!, which has four outlets in the city.

Alissa believes that by stocking alternative pastas and noodles, consumers can stay committed to a healthier lifestyle.

Sally Poon Shi-po, a registered dietitian with the Hong Kong Nutrition Association, notes that many consumers choose alternatives such as buckwheat and quinoa because they contain more wholegrain and are higher in fibre than refined pasta, which is traditionally made from durum wheat flour and water or eggs.

Dietary fibre keeps the digestive system healthy and prevents constipation. Wholegrain pastas generally have a low glycaemic index (GI) and low GI diets have been shown to improve both glucose and lipid levels in people with type 1 and 2 diabetes.

But instead of the extremes of the low carb diet movement, balance is key. "As a dietitian, I encourage a balanced diet that is high in fibre and low in fat, sugar and salt," says Poon. "Wholegrain is preferred over refined carbohydrates."

For those concerned about weight control, wholegrain pastas are preferable in that they help control and delay hunger.

Low GI foods also reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance as opposed to high GI, which include refined carbohydrates such as white rice and white bread.

Local shop owners attribute the rise in gluten-free and alternative pasta options to a growing local interest in gluten intolerance.

Punam Chopra, owner of Spicebox Organics, an all-Indian organic store in Sai Ying Pun, says in the two-plus years since she opened her shop, she has seen an increase in consumers interested in health foods and nutrition.

"There's a curiosity about organic products, especially from the local community," she says. Chopra says she had her company certified organic by the USDA's National Organic Programme even though Hong Kong does not require it. The purpose of this, she says, was to build trust with her customers and educate the community on the importance of providing authentic, organic products.

While alternative pastas are not conclusively "healthier" than wheat or flour pasta, they do serve a purpose for those seeking greater nutritional value from their pasta.

"For those who eat a lot of carbohydrates, moving from white bread, rice, pasta and noodles make sense. Wholegrains will still have the same amount of calories but they will also have a healthy amount of calories that counteract the impact of carbohydrates on our blood sugar levels," says Alissa.

"Stable blood sugar contributes to consistent energy levels throughout the day and helps to limit weight gain and prevent type 2 diabetes."

Many people want to make changes and live healthier, but give up pasta or a bowl of Asian-style noodles? Many people just don't have the willpower to do it
Moosa Alissa, co-owner of organic convenience store, JustGreen!

Here's a rundown of what to try if you're in the market for pasta alternatives:

Spelt pasta Spelt is an ancient grain that is widely used in breads, biscuits, crackers and pretzels. It is primarily found in health food shops. It has a nutty flavour similar to quinoa, but it's not gluten free. While it may not appeal to those who prefer regular grain pasta, as it is far less dense, a 56-gram serving can provide a hefty eight grams of protein and five grams of fibre.

Buckwheat sweet potato noodles Not to be confused with buckwheat noodles, which are mostly made of wheat flour, buckwheat sweet potato noodles are a perfect year-round treat as they can be served cold or hot. Chewy and tasty, these noodles can be prepared in a variety of ways including stir-fried, in soup or with a simple soba dipping sauce.

Brown rice pasta Brown rice pasta is one of the most popular alternative pastas out there. Made from ground brown rice, it provides nearly 200 calories per 56-gram portion of dry pasta. Those who find the mushy texture of non-wheat pastas problematic may want to try Tinkyada Pasta or Doves Farm Organic, both of which seemed to retain their texture and density.

Quinoa pasta Quinoa, the "super grain" known for being high in protein and iron, can be just as satisfying in pasta form. When cooked properly, it can mimic "real" pasta while containing less sodium and fat and no cholesterol. Ancient Harvest brand has a spaghetti-style noodle made of a corn-quinoa blend and Andean Dream has an enjoyable quinoa-rice blend fusili.

Red lentil and black bean pastas Those who prefer their foods to consist of a single ingredient may want to consider lentil or bean-based pastas, which are not blended with rice or flour. Similar to quinoa, they are rich in protein and iron, and are available in a number of pasta shapes, including penne, fettuccini and rotini.