Choosing pasta is no longer just about the size and shape. Whether it’s fettuccini, rotini or good ol’ macaroni, white vs. wheat is the latest supermarket quandary (right along with paper vs. plastic). So is choosing whole worth it?

Nothing But the Wheat—Why It Matters

The main difference between white and whole wheat pasta lies in the processing. Whole wheat contains three parts of the grain—the bran (the grain’s outer layer), the germ (the sprouting section of the seed), and the endosperm (the large starchy center). But during the refining process, the heat is on—forcing the nutrient-rich bran and germ out of the grain, leaving just the endosperm behind. While the stripped-down white stuff boasts a longer shelf life, not to mention a cheaper price tag, it’s considered nutritionally weaker (even though the endosperm packs a fair share of protein, carbohydrates, iron, and B vitamins).New hypotheses for the health-protective mechanisms of whole-grain cereals: what is beyond fibre? Fardet, A. INRA, UMR 1019 Nutrition Humaine, Saint-Genès-Champanelle, France. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2010 Jun;23(1):65-134. Epub 2010 Jun 22.The botanical integrity of wheat products influences the gastric distention and satiety in healthy subjects. Hlebowicz, J., Lindstedt, S., Björgell, O., et al. Department of Medicine, University of Lund, Malmö University Hospital, Malmö, Sweden. Nutrition Journal. 2008 Apr 27;7:12.

Of course, the same rules apply when choosing in the bread aisle. Opting for whole wheat ensures the most nutritional benefits, including the bran and the germ’s vitamin E, major B vitamins, antioxidants, appetite-squashing fiber, protein, and healthy fats. But how often do we need the whole (wheat) enchilada? Several studies have shown that eating at least three servings of whole grains (a ½ cup of cooked whole wheat pasta counts as one serving) per day can reduce the risk of chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, cancer, and digestive issues.Whole grain intake and cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis. Mellen, P.B, Walsh, T.F, Herrington, D.M. Department of Internal Medicine, Section of General Medicine, Wake Forest University Health Sciences, Winston-Salem, NC. Nutrition Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease. 2008 May;18(4):283-90. Epub 2007 Apr 20.Dietary fiber and whole-grain consumption in relation to colorectal cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Schatzkin, A., Mouw, T., Park, Y., et al. Division of Cancer Epidemiology, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Bethesda, MDAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007 May;85(5):1353-60.Whole-grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of noncardiovascular, noncancer death attributed to inflammatory diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Jacobs, D.R Jr., Andersen, L.F., Blomhoff, R. Department of Nutrition, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007 Jun;85(6):1606-14.(Though, of course, these benefits can only be reaped by those without an allergy or intolerance to wheat.)

Pasta La Vista Baby—The Answer/Debate

Although some nutrients, including iron and B vitamins, are often added back into white pasta to create an “enriched” product, these still can’t compete with the natural benefits of unrefined whole grains. Still, whole wheat pasta may take some time to catch on, so don’t expect to find the option on most restaurant menus (and forget about the more traditional Italian establishments).

Luckily most supermarkets stock a few whole wheat pasta options— just be sure to take a closer look at those nutrition labels. True whole wheat pasta will list 100 percent durum whole wheat flour as the first ingredient. And check the front of package for “100 percent whole wheat,” or the orange “Whole Grain” stamp.

Getting used to the taste and texture of whole wheat pasta may take a little time, thanks to its strong, nuttier flavor and more grainy consistency. But following the suggested cooking will ensure the noodles don’t get too gummy and start sticking together (no one wants a ball of pasta instead of a bowl of pasta). With the right sauce or topping, adding whole wheat pasta is an easy way to enjoy a healthy meal and sneak those whole grains onto the menu. Mangiamo!

Originally posted on October 10, 2011. Updated September 2012.