Good Carb, Bad Carb: Why Gluten-Rich Durum Wheat Pasta is Healthy

Real pasta we all know is made from 100 % durum, the hardest, densest wheat with the most gluten strength. If gluten is the culprit protein in wheat that causes a severe autoimmune reaction in about one percent of the population with celiac disease, so bad for us that it's given rise to  a $16 billion gluten-free industry, why isn't pasta the ultimate menace?  In one section of the two chapters I devote to pasta in Grain of Truth  I look into the biology of durum, the basic DNA we can imagine but never see with the naked eye. All we get are  the noodles. Evolution, I discovered,  plays a major role. Durum wheat contains 24 chromosomes, about half as many as bread wheat. One result is that it lacks the D-genome, which plays a role in initiating the autoimmune syndrome associated with celiac disease. More genetically primitive forms of wheat like spelt, einkorn, emmer and durum with fewer chromosomes are easier for the gut to handle .  

Differences in molecular weight and in  the ratio of one gluten protein to another  ( gliadin to glutenin) factor into this. But  the nature of the end-product itself makes a difference, Unlike powdery refined white flour,  semolina flour made from durum consists of large, crystal-like yellow particles. As explained on live science.com,  "Its naturally strong gluten content prevents starch from leaching out quickly, and this in turn leads to slower digestion, slower release of sugar into the blood, and a greater feeling of satiation."  Gluten, in other words, is your friend in pasta. Its proteins need to be strong enough to retain the gelatinzed starch granules that form during the cooking process.  Pushed through a brass dye, semolina flour gets compressed into a very compact structure, which also helps. Extruded firmly bonded pasta results, and it  doesn't speed  through your gut walls. By inhibiting the conversion of starch, gluten and extrusion lower your glycemic index (GI) —a measurement by number of glucose sugar in your bloodstream. 

Any assigned number over 50 on the GI  signals a food or beverage that makes your insulin work overtime and that can trigger obesity. Pasta comes in from 25 to 45, depending on the type.In any form, from linguini to  fusilli,  a good carb. Corn Flakes and potatoes, by comparison, scores about 80.

Our problem is that we eat too much pasta at one sitting, way too fast, without walking it off.  Italians typically eat a little every day, often walk it off, and are one-third as obese as Americans. Whole wheat , as I explain in Grain of Truth,, brings another healthy dimension to pasta—one that most of us have avoided until now, since it has a reputation of tasting like roofing material  in the immortal words of Robin Williams. But pasta producers are now turning out delicious as well as nutritious whole wheat pastas, based on demand. It costs more, and it's worth more in health benefits than it costs. At oldways.com, Cynthia Harriman offers an excellent overview of the research on gluten levels in ancient whole grains. 

Whether whole or semolina, pasta arrives on the table as a wheat product that carries a lot of emotional baggage—it's the world's number one comfort food—and it arrives with its own unique cooking mythology.  A few tips from experts on how to get it just right.

  • Cook all pasta al dente. Anything cooked beyond firm and chewy loses its health benefits and much of its flavor. Organic varieties are highly recommended. 
  • Cover, boil and turn off the  heat. Once you get it to a roiling boil turn the heat all the way off, set timer for seven to eight minutes, let it sit, and check after six minutes. The pasta cooks just as fast as if boiling, and you have much more control over its final texture.
  •  Drain but don't rinse unless using for cold pasta salad. Preserve a little of the water for sauces. 

Or cook it your way, not mine. But, please, with pleasure, not fear of collapsing into a diabetic coma. Mangiare e godere! Eat and enjoy.