ROME - At the peak of her fame in the 1960s, Italian actress Sophia Loren was asked to share beauty secrets. Gesturing toward her shapely figure, she replied, "Everything you see is because of pasta."
Times change. Loren is now co-starring with an enormous, slobbering dog in a popular commercial on Italian television, and pasta is in the doghouse, too, thanks to the Atkins diet and America's current terror of carbohydrates.
Which explains why a group of nearly 300 scientists, chefs and nutritionists met in Rome last week to debunk myths about pasta's alleged nutritional deficiencies, and celebrate what is Italy's version of soul food. While "Healthy Pasta Meals" was the official name for the convocation, "Pasta Fights Back!" was the nickname preferred by participants, and a more appropriate one, given the occasionally bellicose proceedings. Sessions barely had begun before opening salvos were fired.
"Would the Atkins diet be such a success if they called it a high-fat diet, which it is?" asked K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a Boston-based nutrition think tank that organized the conference. "No, of course it wouldn't, which is why Atkins is always called a low-carbohydrate diet."
"We are living in a time when science is not making its voice heard, when food companies are perpetuating pseudoscience," said Giorgio Calabrese, a professor of nutrition at Catholic University of Piacenza, Italy. "As a result, we see a proliferation of so-called 'diets' that are actually reducing the life expectancy of those who eat them. I hope Atkins will soon experience a premature death, too."
And so it went through three days of presentations. Some were deeply scientific, with PowerPoint graphs, flow charts and nearly incomprehensible talk of lipids and triglycerides. Others were downright saucy, with tasty tips about how to cook and serve pasta. (Say al dente, everybody!) Righteous scorn was heaped upon other weight-loss fads - remember the Scarsdale, cabbage soup, grapefruit or peanut-butter diets? - an ash heap to which the low-carb menu will soon be consigned. Or, so the "Fight Back!" crowd believes.
Pasta itself is nearly 700 years old, and wasn't, as you may have heard, discovered by Marco Polo in China. Instead, suggested Clifford Wright, a culinary historian and cookbook author, pasta was first enjoyed in Sicily, where Arab influence was still strong well into the 13th century. The soil here is well suited for growing hard durum wheat, Triticum turgidum, a variety with a high gluten component that's ideal for making pasta secca, or dried pasta.
Milling techniques to grind wheat, it seems, advanced oh-so-slowly. In earlier days, the resulting flour was coarser and not suitable for turning into bread. This was especially true for Sicily's wheat, which, even after being ground, resulted in a granular substance with a texture more like couscous. Still, it was elastic when mixed with water and formed a quite malleable dough.
A movable feast
Cut into bits, or rolled into thin cakes or sheets, this substance could be stored nearly indefinitely, and then quickly boiled or steamed before being eaten. Durability combined with portability made it popular with Arab nomads and Islamic missionaries, as well as those going on oceanic journeys, said Wright. Thus was pasta first eaten.
Pasta is now considered healthful for several reasons. It's a source of dietary fiber, vitamins and anti-oxidants, among other things. However, pasta's unusual chemical structure is the basis for its main health claim today, according to Dr. David Jenkins, a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto Medical School.
Jenkins, who in 1981 invented something called the glycemic index to rank different foods for how quickly their carbohydrates are turned into blood sugar, reminded his audience that in America's current obsession with "cutting carbs," we've overlooked that not all carbohydrates are equal. Some metabolize more rapidly, and trigger a much higher "spike" of insulin in order to be digested. Rice, white bread and potatoes, for example, metabolize with nearly twice the speed of pasta, and cause a speeded-up digestive havoc in doing so. When extra insulin is called for, the body consumes glucose with undue haste, so that not too long after eating, you're hungry again.
"If you put a slice of bread in water, it will be mush in a matter of minutes," Jenkins said, "but pasta maintains its shape. Even after it's chewed, bits of pasta take longer to be processed in the intestine." Whereas foods that are high on the glycemic index, such as a hamburger bun and fries, will shock the system, Jenkins said, the more patient pasta not only satisfies hunger pangs for longer (allowing you to eat less), but puts less stress on your digestive system. Foods with a low glycemic index, including fruit, vegetables and legumes as well as pasta, may also play a key role in preventing such chronic ailments as diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain cancers.
Whether this distinction will make a difference to someone desperate to lose a few pounds is debatable. "It took decades to distinguish between different types of fats, monosaturated, polyunsatured and so on. Probably a similar amount of time will be required for distinctions between carbohydrates," said Dr. Christine Pelkman, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Buffalo, New York.
That carbohydrates can be both healthful and delicious, however, was a point easily agreed upon last week in Rome, where participants were treated to pasta recipes that featured fava beans, sea urchin eggs and guanciale (salt-cured pork jowls), among other ingredients.
"Pasta is the perfect delivery system for a variety of healthy foods: tomatoes, beans, vegetables or seafood," said Oldways' Gifford.
"America is a young nation," said Michael Romano, whose Union Square Cafe in New York is revered for its Mediterranean spirit. "We have less gastronomic heritage, so there's a tendency to allow big business and marketing to create new food fads for us. ... But I am awed to come to Rome, where my favorite restaurants make great things, and always have, with pasta."