By Erin Sund
Pasta is a beloved comfort food for many, but for people with celiac disease — an autoimmune disease in which gluten damages the intestine — traditional wheat pasta is off limits. There's good news for gluten-free eaters, though: a new type of healthy and tasty gluten-free pasta may be in the works, and it hails from a surprising source — green bananas.
A recent study by the Department of Nutrition at the University of Brazil, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests that green banana flour, which contains healthy bioactive compounds, may help those with celiac disease enjoy their favorite pasta dishes without the extra fat and calories in some gluten-free pasta alternatives. Researchers tested gluten-free pasta made with green banana flour and egg whites against pasta made with whole-wheat flour and whole eggs. The result? Both celiac and non-celiac testers preferred the green banana pasta.
Green Bananas and Health
Today's gluten-free pastas are often made with brown rice or quinoa, and are sometimes higher in fat and calories than traditional wheat pasta because fat is added to disguise the removal of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that gives pasta its appealing texture.
"Not only was green banana an important ingredient to substitute for gluten because of its elasticity and firmness," says Raquel Braz Assunção Botelho, PhD, one of the study's authors, "But green banana [is] 75 percent resistant starch and [has] phenolic acids that are important for intestine health." Resistant starch is a complex carbohydrate that may promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the large intestine. Phenolic acids are antioxidants that also support eye and heart health.
Green banana pasta may save gluten-free eaters some calories, too. When comparing green banana flour pasta to gluten-free pastas made from rice flour and quinoa, researchers in the Journal study noted that green banana pasta has 83 calories per 100-gram portion, while the other gluten-free pastas tested had 135 calories in the same portion.
Passing the Taste Test
Researchers know that even the healthiest product won't sell if it doesn't taste good. Green banana pasta taste testers were asked to rate the product's flavor, aroma, texture and overall quality on a nine-point scale, "one" being extreme dislike and "nine" being extreme like. The green banana pasta was well accepted by the celiac testers, who gave the pasta grades higher than a six on the scale, but it was also the favorite of non-celiac testers.
"Non-celiac individuals that tasted the standard and the modified pasta show that they preferred the modified pasta — the green banana pasta developed by the group," says Braz Assunção Botelho. "It [showed] that all the family can use this new pasta."
A Cheaper Alternative
One glance at the price difference between gluten-free pasta and its regular counterpart, and you'll see why following a gluten-free diet can be expensive. Researchers say green bananas are often discarded before they make it to market, so turning this under-used produce into gluten-free flour for pasta may eventually present a lower-cost alternative for consumers.
Savings may be had at the dinner table, too. According to the study in the Journal, "the green banana pasta showed greater water absorption, which leads to higher yield after cooking." This means a smaller amount of dried pasta generates a larger serving of cooked pasta, which helps a gluten-free eater stretch her food budget.
And because the green banana pasta was enjoyed by both celiac and non-celiac taste testers, families with both types of eaters can all enjoy the same pasta dish, cutting costs associated with preparing both gluten-free and "regular" entrees for a shared meal.
Reviewed April 2013
Erin Sund is an online content manager at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.