CHICAGO — Slowed down in recent years by keto and low-carb diets, pasta is making a comeback. While spirals, elbows and spaghetti made from durum wheat (semolina) comforted many in the early months of the pandemic, it’s the new formulations that are fueling innovation in chilled and frozen ready meals. It’s pasta that keto and low-carb dieters can eat thanks to innovations from processors using grains, legumes, vegetables, and even alternative animal proteins to make tasty, nutrient-dense pasta, while adding the trait of being gluten-free, an attribute that continues to appeal to label-reading consumers.
“Black rice, pumpkin, red lentils and purple carrots bring new twists to traditional pasta in an Instagram-friendly way,” said Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, Professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science, Department of Food Management. Food and Hospitality, Drexel University, Philadelphia. , and one of the 2022 Trend Watchers for the Specialty Food Association, New York.
For The Real Good Food Co., Los Angeles, thinly sliced chicken is key to its gluten-free lasagna-style noodles used in the company’s new low-carb, high-protein frozen lasagna bowl. Using a proprietary process, the company combines chicken with Parmesan cheese, and the mixture is shaped, pressed and sliced to resemble lasagna.
“We all want to make foods more nutritious by eliminating highly processed flours,” said AJ Stiffelman, chief marketing officer. “By cutting out carbs and sugars, we’re working to address concerns around a variety of health issues, including diabetes, obesity, and general fitness.”
The company chose to avoid using low-carb noodles that are made up of multiple ingredients. Instead, the brand relies on a whole-food formulation that provides positive nutrition.
“It has 32 grams of protein and only 11 grams of net carbs,” said Bryan Freeman, president of Real Good Food Co. little nutritional value.”
Chicken noodles are also used in the brand’s new range of frozen cannelloni, with low-carb, gluten-free “pasta” filled with ricotta cheese. The varieties are marinara, spinach and alfredo.
In Real Good Food’s Lemon Chicken Bowl, hearts of palm are the key ingredient to create gluten-free pasta noodles.
“With the frozen meals space being one of the fastest growing retail categories, we wanted to provide consumers with more choice,” said Stiffelman. “We explored options for more traditional noodles, and after much trial and error, we found that the naturally gluten-free heart of palm noodles met our standards.”
The company sources the noodles from overseas and then prepares them in a way that makes them a bit drier for the lemon chicken bowl. The technique brings them closer to traditional semolina pasta.
What makes hearts of palm more appealing than zucchini (zoodles) as a frozen pasta substitute? It is the fibrous nature of hearts of palm that binds the inherent water content by 90%, making it a more structurally durable noodle than squash. Palm hearts are harvested from the inner core and growing buds of certain palm trees. They are 100% edible and firm, much like linguini, which is the most common form to cut and sell as a traditional pasta substitute.
Replacement of semolina
Firmness is a key attribute of pasta. This is why coarsely ground semolina flour is so popular for making pasta. It comes from a variety of wheat called durum, the word durum meaning hard, like durable. Hardness refers to the strength to grind it and correlates with protein content. Durum wheat contains around 13% protein, compared to all-purpose flour, which has a protein content of around 8% to 11%.
The coarse grind gives semolina pasta a rough texture, which allows sauces to stick. This is not possible with some of the original gluten-free rice noodles. Rice is also low in protein – about 6% – and devoid of fiber. Wheat pasta varies in fiber content, but all will contain it, which also helps with its sustainability.
Visually, semolina flour has a natural golden hue of durum wheat. Doughs made with all-purpose flour, bread flour, or rice flour look white.
It’s hard to create wheat-free and gluten-free noodles that look like traditional pasta. The good news is that consumers have become more forgiving, especially when pasta is used in a prepared dish. Formulators have also become more creative in mixing ingredients to produce pastes that appeal to the senses while providing nutrition.
Cadence Kitchen, Corona, Calif., known for its frozen ready meals, recently entered the gluten-free space with chicken and pasta in a cheesy barbecue sauce. The dish cooks in less than 10 minutes on the stovetop and requires no additional ingredients.
“Knowing that consumer interest in gluten-free items has nearly quadrupled over the past decade, and hearing a desire for more gluten-free options from our own customers, we set out to innovate a pasta recipe that delivers that while delivering unparalleled quality when cooking from frozen,” said Alex Klein, President.
The shells are made with red lentil flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, whole egg, egg white, and xanthan gum. Eggs provide protein and contribute to the firmness of pasta, while starches and gum retain moisture and prevent breakage, among other functions.
Cappello’s, Denver, has added three varieties of gluten-free ravioli to its frozen pasta line. The star ingredient – almond flour – is combined with eggs, tapioca flour and other ingredients. The varieties are the five cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, fontina and asiago) and spinach with ricotta cheese. There is also a dairy-free butternut squash option.
Tribe 9 Foods, Madison, Wisconsin, makers of the Taste Republic brand of refrigerated gluten-free pasta, rolls out plant-based sausage ravioli with Beyond Sausage Italian Crumbles from Beyond Meat, El Segundo, CA. The caveat here is the product is not vegan, even though it touts plant protein.
“Fresh, great-tasting ravioli should be available to everyone,” said Brian Durst, General Manager of Tribe 9 Foods. “Beyond Meat has done for meat what we did for pasta: to create an option comparable to its traditional counterparts.”
Dumplings are made with brown rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, whole egg, egg white, flax seeds and xanthan gum, a formulation similar to red lentil shells. Brown rice flour provides a little more protein and fiber than if it came from white rice. It also brings a bit of color. Flaxseed is another source of protein, fiber and color and when it absorbs water produces a gelatinous texture that mimics wheat pasta. Because it’s fresh pasta, ravioli cook al dente in just two to three minutes.
Fresh pasta, sold chilled or frozen, is precooked, and this is an important attribute of most next-generation gluten-free options on the market. The products are fragile, unlike their durum wheat counterparts. With products like Taste Republic Ravioli, excessive boiling can cause the product to decompose. Drying it out and selling it in the ambient aisle will also harm the integrity of the product during boiling.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles-based Caulipower introduced two varieties — linguine and pappardelle — of frozen cauliflower pasta. Gluten-free pasta contains cauliflower as the first ingredient; however, it also contains a range of other ingredients including corn flour, potato starch, rice flour, lentil flour, psyllium, citrus fiber, sunflower seed oil, guar gum and xanthan gum to create a desirable texture. The pasta is vegan and does not contain eggs, which are beneficial for product integrity and protein content. A serving contains 5 grams of fiber but 2 grams of incomplete protein (not containing all the essential amino acids in the proportion required by the body).
“They look, cook and taste like fresh pasta, with fewer calories than any other on the market, fresh, frozen or dry,” said Gail Becker, Founder and COO. “Our mission is to make America’s favorite delicious comfort foods healthier using the power of plants.”
Dry limits ingredient options
When it comes to gluten-free dry pasta, there are fewer ingredients and processes available to formulators, which tends to hurt quality. Many are simple swaps of semolina for legumes or another gluten-free flour, mixed with water, then formed and dried. For many consumers, it works, especially if used in recipes with savory sauces.
Barilla, Northbrook, Illinois, for example, offers chickpea spaghetti. Like the rest of the Barilla Pulse Pasta range, Barilla Chickpea Spaghetti is made entirely from chickpea flour.
“We are always listening to buyers,” said Jean-Pierre Comte, president of Barilla Americas. “Spaghetti is a loved and sought-after cut, so adding it to our pulse offerings was a natural next step. Adding a long-cut chickpea paste allows pasta lovers to get more creative with their meals and recipes with delicious taste and al dente texture.
Barilla Chickpea Spaghetti provides 11 grams of protein and 8 grams of dietary fiber per serving. It joins chickpea rotini, red lentil spaghetti, red lentil penne and red lentil rotini.
Lupine flour is the key ingredient in JaziLupini from the Rochester, NY-based startup of the same name. Founder Jazz Sanchez experimented with various alternative flours before landing on lupine, which is high in protein and fiber and a good source of many vitamins and minerals. She mixes lupine flour with pea protein isolate, tapioca flour and xanthan gum. One serving contains 26 grams of protein, 18 grams of fiber, and 3 net carbs.
Lupine is an oddity in the world of legumes since it is the only bean without starch, which means it contains less sugar than other legumes, which contributes to its keto-friendly positioning.
“JaziLupini will be the first keto pasta option on the market versatile enough to prepare, reheat, cook and freeze meals, just like real pasta,” Ms. Sanchez said.