Niki Bezzant: For the love of pasta

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Some people have digestive problems with gluten, but three-quarters of us can eat it with impunity. Photo / Babiche Martens
Some people have digestive problems with gluten, but three-quarters of us can eat it with impunity. Photo / Babiche Martens

Can we all just agree that "noodles" made from courgette - also known as zucchini pasta - are not the same as pasta? Let's also acknowledge that cauliflower "rice" is not comparable to rice.

These trendy wholefood staples may be tasty - and I'm all for an extra serving of plants on any plate - but sometimes we just feel like the real thing - carbs from that other plant category: grains.

Grains have been getting a hard time lately. They're one of the groups of foods commonly banned on the paleo diet. According to author Daniel Green in his latest book Paleo Monday to Friday ("a diet so good you can take the weekend off") that's because paleolithic people didn't eat them.

Grains contain gluten, he says, which "can irritate and damage the lining of the small intestine". He also asserts "grains have a high GI, which means they encourage the release of insulin, which in turn triggers fat storage".

The same theory is espoused by many wholefood bloggers and Instagram health-food stars, rendering poor old grains suddenly unfashionable in the wellness world. Recent research by the Grains and Legumes Council in Australia found an increasing avoidance of grain-based foods. Common reasons given were for weight loss and a perceived link between grain foods and bloating.

It appears what's happening is a bit of truthiness and a bit of confusion.

The idea that grains cause gut symptoms is not unfounded. For some people, the gluten in some grains will damage the gut. These people suffer from coeliac disease, which is a permanent intolerance to gluten. They need to avoid all traces of wheat, barley, rye and oats. It's thought about one in 70 New Zealanders has coeliac disease.

For some others , the issue is not gluten but types of carbohydrates in some grains (and other foods) known as Fodmaps. Fodmaps are poorly digested by some people, producing symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, including bloating. It's tricky to know how many people this applies to, but in the US it has been estimated IBS affects 15-20 per cent of people, many of whom will be affected by Fodmaps.

That leaves at least three-quarters of us who don't have an issue with grain foods, who are free to enjoy their versatility, flavour and health benefits.

Not all grains are high GI. White bread, white rice, rice cakes, puffed rice certainly are, but there's a big difference between a doughnut and a bowl of wholegrain oats.

Most wholegrains are low GI, which means they help us feel fuller for longer. And they contain useful types of fibre, which are good for our gut health.

Studies have shown people who regularly eat wholegrain and high fibre foods are less likely to gain excess weight over time and are more likely to have smaller waists. What's more, grains taste great.

For most of us, an occasional meal of proper, beautiful pasta prepared with lots of veges and a delicious sauce is a pleasure to be savoured.

Niki Bezzant is editor in chief of Healthy Food Guide magazine.

- NZ Herald

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