History of Pasta

The official origin of pasta is unclear. Records trace pasta back to fourth century B.C. and it had been said that the Greek God Vulcan created the first spaghetti maker.

Pasta did not appear commercially in the United States until 1848. The first pasta factory was built in Brooklyn, New York by a Frenchman who spread spaghetti strands on the roof to dry in the sun. U.S. pasta production increased during World War I when all Italian imports were cut off and its popularity in the United States has grown ever since.

Pasta Shapes, Sizes and Uses

“Pasta,” an Italian word meaning “paste,” describes the various shapes and sizes of products made with flour and water. There are more than 600 shapes of pasta worldwide, ranging from the tiny bead like North African couscous, Greek orzo and German spaetzle to the larger, ingredient-filled Italian ravioli, Asian wontons and Polish pierogis.

Pasta products may be divided into two types; dried or commercial and fresh. Pasta may also be categorized by shape:

  • Long goods such as spaghetti, fettuccine or linguine.
  • Short goods, including elbows, rotini, penne and ziti.
  • Specialty products, such as shells, bow ties and lasagna.

Following is a guide to choosing a type of pasta based on the accompanying sauce:

  • Thin delicate pasta should be served with light, thin sauces.
  • Thicker shapes work well with heavier sauces.
  • Pasta shapes with holes or ridges are best for chunkier sauces. Ridges hold sauce better.

Whole-Grain Spaghetti

Ever tried to look for whole-grain spaghetti choices in your supermarkets but cannot find them? The next time you are in the supermarket, try looking for “wholemeal spaghetti”. Wholemeal spaghetti is a whole-grain product. Wholemeal products are made from whole-grain flour. Like wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta is made from wheat with the husk intact. Wholemeal pasta also comes in a variety of shapes, most commonly spaghetti and lasagna. It can take a little longer to cook than white pasta. Do check the package for cooking instructions.

The Wheat Behind the Pasta

Much of the world’s pasta is made from durum wheat flour. Durum is the hardest of the six classes of wheat grown in the United States and North Dakota leads the country in Durum production. Durum is also grown in South Dakota, Montana and Southern California.

  • Durum is considered the gold standard for pasta production; the wheat kernel’s density and high protein and gluten content result in firm pasta with consistent cooking quality and golden color.
  • The Durum wheat kernel is milled into different types of flour including Durum, Semolina and Farina flours. Each of these flours is best suited for certain types of pasta.

Countries around the world import U.S. Durum wheat to make their preferred form of pasta. Italy followed by Tunisia, Venezuela and Nigeria were the top importers of U.S. durum wheat in 2007.

Pasta Cuisine

Before you begin cooking, read on to learn about pasta’s role in each of these cuisines. 

  • In Italy, pasta is worthy of its own course. The traditional, three-course Italian meal consists of antipasti (hors d’oeuvres), primo (pasta or risotto) and secondo (meat or fish, possibly accompanied by vegetables).
  • “Fideo” is the Spanish word for noodles or pasta and, in Mexico, fideo is commonly used in soup or “sopa” or fried and eaten as a snack.
  • Couscous is the national dish of the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. In addition to fish, vegetables and legumes, featured regional accompaniments include tomatoes in Algeria, saffron in Morocco and harissa, a hot salsa, in Tunisia.
  • Russians showcase heavier, richer pasta dishes with meats, vegetables and cream-based sauces all of which are present in their signature stroganoff.
  • Mediterranean dishes pair pasta with heart-healthy olive oil, vegetables and fish. In the Mediterranean country of Greece, pasta is called “zymarika.”

Pasta Nutrition

Pasta is as nutritious as it is delicious. It is low in fat and sodium, has no cholesterol and contains complex carbohydrates, which can provide longer lasting energy and help you to feel fuller longer.

Complex carbohydrates are starches that require more time to digest than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are the body’s best source of energy because they are burned in a constant, time-released manner.

Pasta can be made with whole grain or enriched grain flour. Pasta, as with most grain foods, is a good source of fiber, the major B vitamins (thiamin, niacin and folic acid) and iron.

Fiber is a general term for the indigestible part of plant foods. It provides almost no energy or calories, yet is an important part of a healthy diet. There are two types of dietary fiber: insoluble and soluble.

  1. White flour products contain some soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels when eaten as part of a low-fat diet.
  2. Whole-wheat products and bran are sources of insoluble fiber, which acts as a bulk producer to help reduce the risk of constipation and diverticular disease, and help relieve hemorrhoids. Foods containing insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of colon cancer, and according to recent studies, may help reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that has been shown to protect against neural tube defects such as spina bifida (a birth defect in which the spinal cord is not completely encased in bone) and anencephaly (a fatal defect in which part of the brain never develops).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend five to ten ounces of grain foods such as bread, cereal, rice and pasta daily (depending on age, gender and activity level), with half of them coming from whole-grain foods. One serving or ounce-equivalent equals 1/2 cup of cooked pasta or about 2.5 ounces.

Guilt-Free Pasta

Switch to tomato or vegetable-based sauce for guilt-free pasta. A half-cup of pasta adds another serving to your 6 to 11 for the day in the grain group. Alternatively, spice up spaghetti with salsa and chopped green chilies for a Southwestern flair on a powerful meal ready in minutes.

Saucy Tips

When you order pasta at an Italian restaurant, your healthiest sauce choices are marinara, primavera, and red or white clam sauce. Pasta portions at restaurants are generally way oversized — order pasta from the appetizer section of the menu to control your portion. Another tip: Share entrees to control portion size. Eat family style and order one or two fewer dishes than the number of people at the table.

Celebrating Pasta

National Pasta Month, which occurs annually in October, was created by the National Pasta Association. The purpose is to educate people about the benefits of pasta and celebrate its presence in the United States and around the world.

World Pasta Day occurs each year on October 25th to honor pasta as a global food, consumed in all five continents, and increase awareness of its nutritional benefits. It was established at the first World Pasta Congress held on October 25, 1995 in Rome, Italy.

Healthful Pasta Sauce

Pasta sauce Store bought sauces sell well mostly because of convenience, economy and family-wide appeal, but you can take heart; they’re healthy and nutritious, too.

Tomato-based sauces are an excellent source of the carotenoid lycopene. A little fat in the sauce – or elsewhere in the meal – aids absorption of this powerful antioxidant.

Store shelves these days include organic sauces, “no salt added” options and innumerable variations with onions, garlic, mushrooms, spinach or peppers, all of which add flavor and nutrition. But watch out for hidden dangers, like sky-high sodium levels and added sugar. Beware the new trend of restaurant sauce “wannabes” like Alfredo and vodka sauces; often they are too high in fat and calories.

  • Pick a sauce by its color – the redder the better. The more tomato in your sauce, the more disease fighting lycopene it contains. Lighter sauces like pink vodka or white cheese or Alfredo sauces are nearly always high in fat, saturated fat and calories.
  • Choose chunky for more fiber. Go for garden-style sauces or those that contain any kind of vegetables. They can add three to four grams of fiber per one-half cup serving of sauce. Pair with a two-ounce serving of whole-grain pasta for eight to 10 grams of fiber – about one-third your daily needs.
  • Cut the sodium and fat in your favorite sauce by adding a can of fat-free no-added salt tomato sauce or low-sodium canned diced tomatoes.
  • Reach for canned sauces to save some cents. A typical can costs about five cents per ounce compared to eight to 14 cents per ounce for jarred sauces and up to 20 cents per ounce for upscale sauces in pouches.