During the dark days of winter, one of the best ways to warm up is with a steaming bowl of pasta. Consumed worldwide, this wheaten staple is uniquely versatile, simple to make and always satisfying. Italians boil it until it’s al dente, Chinese fry it to a warm crisp and Americans bake it into a soft cheesy melt.
About 77 percent of Americans eat pasta at least once a week, according to a National Pasta Association survey. More than 40 percent of those surveyed said spaghetti is their favorite pasta. It may still twirl on a fork and paint the corners of people’s mouths red with sauce, but spaghetti isn’t what it used to be.
There is a scientific explanation for the pleasure people find in this comfort food. The carbohydrates in wheat stimulate the production of serotonin—our bodies’ “feel good” chemical. In her book, The Food and Mood Handbook, Amanda Geary explains the urge to eat starchy or sugary foods may be an unconscious attempt to increase serotonin levels. Pasta is one of the best foods to eat when feeling down because the body slowly absorbs its unrefined carbohydrates.
It’s no wonder that during the coldest days of winter, pasta consumption increases by as much as 20 percent, according to Rice Innovations president Raj Sukul. There is no shame in bellying up to a bowl of pasta when feeling down. For vegetarians, vegans or people with special dietary needs, pasta has a special place, and there is no shortage of options.
A Big Business
According to the National Pasta Association, the U.S. market exceeds three billion pounds per year. While organic pasta represents only two percent of total yearly pasta sales, it is a growing niche. “Organic pasta is still a small category. But it’s growing 10 to 12 percent annually, while conventional pasta sales are flat,” says Liz Reinhiller, director of marketing and public relations for Dakota Growers Pasta, which produces both organic and non-organic pasta. “The organic food industry has become more mainstream. They’re being integrated with other foods at the supermarket.”
Reinhiller says she thinks the organic market is growing because of new consumer concerns. “People want to know where their food comes from, how it is made and who is making it,” she says. And Dakota Growers Pasta sees organic as a growing and profitable trend. People who buy organic are willing to pay an average of 80 cents more per pound for pasta they know is pesticide-free, she says.
The pasta market also will continue to grow as Americans try to eat healthier diets, Reinhiller predicts. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study conducted this year, entitled “A Comparison of Low-Carbohydrate vs. High-Carbohydrate Diets,” found that adults who ate high-carbohydrate diets (with a high proportion of grain products, fruits and vegetables) were more likely to be in the normal weight range category than those with low-carbohydrate diets.
Wheat has been Italy’s most valuable grain since the ancient Carthaginians first sold it to the Romans. Spaghetti made of durum—a hard wheat that grows best in warm, dry Mediterranean climates—is the most frequently consumed pasta variety, according to Florence Macaroni Manufacturing’s plant manager, Tom Behnke, but there are many other options. Eden Foods makes several types of pasta with kamut, a non-hybridized golden wheat that some people with wheat allergies are able to eat.
Some wheat-sensitive people rely on spelt-based pastas from companies like Earthy Delights ($2.75). Spelt has a “nutty” flavor that is popular in Europe; it is known as “farro” in Italy and “dinkle” in Germany. It is an ancient and distant cousin to modern wheat but differs in nutritional content. The grain is high in fiber, and contains significantly more protein than wheat. Spelt is also higher in B complex vitamins, and both simple and complex carbohydrates.
For those who cannot tolerate the gluten in spelt and wheat, there are gluten-free options. Rice Innovations, a small family-owned business that specializes in gluten-free products, makes pasta from rice and potato flour. In North America, all of the company’s rice pastas, called Pastarico ($2.49 to $2.69), are organic. Raj Sukul started working for Rice Innovations before he discovered he has celiac disease, a disease of the digestive system that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Because celiac disease manifests itself in diverse ways, it is often overlooked or misdiagnosed, says Sukul, who may never have discovered his illness had he not worked for a company that specializes in catering to people who have it.
Several other grains are also used to make pasta. Quinoa Corporation makes gluten-free pasta ($1.79 to $2.29) from corn and organic quinoa flours. Quinoa, an increasingly popular grain, is an ancient crop from the Andes. According to Quinoa Corporation it contains more protein than any other grain. For those interested in the protein and other benefits of soy products, Eddie’s Spaghetti makes a new organic soy pasta ($1.49 to $2.69).
Eating organic is as important as ever. Since most states do not collect data on pesticide use, it is difficult to say the precise environmental impact of conventional pasta production. The Pesticide Action Network’s (PAN) study on pesticide use in California, “Hooked on Poison,” reveals that wheat, corn and rice were sprayed with one to 10 pounds of active ingredient per acre in 1998. While these rates are low compared to many fresh fruits, PAN says that between 25 and 72 percent of the pesticides sprayed on these grains are “bad actor” pesticides, which are acute poisons, neurotoxins, known or probable carcinogens, reproductive or developmental toxicants or groundwater contaminants.
For the active organic pasta-loving vegan with celiac disease, Road’s End Organics offers some tasty treats for parents and children. Matt Koch, the company’s president, has been vegan for four years and is always finding new justifications for his diet, he says. “I am concerned about the environment and love animals,” Koch explains. A bowl of his Mac and Chreese ($1.50 to $1.89) may be different from the friendly food many people snuggle up with on cold winter nights, but it’s just as comforting.
EVE HIGHTOWER is an editorial intern at E.