I've heard so many different things about pasta from a nutritional standpoint.
Is pasta from Italy enriched with vitamins and minerals [like it is in the United States]?
Is pasta cooked al dente better for you because it digests slower?
Some say [pasta] is no better than white refined bread, but others say differently?
What's the deal?
-- Carrie Watson
(via the blog)
What a great trilogy of questions! Let's taken them one by one.
White flour products in the United States are enriched with nutrients lost in the milling process (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and iron) as a result of The Federal Enrichment Act of 1942.
In the United States, all white flour products are also fortified with folate.
Some countries have similar laws (in Argentina, the same nutrients are added back to flour, whereas in England white flour must be enriched with these nutrients AND fortified with calcium), but Italy is not one of them.
From a nutritional standpoint, cooking pasta al dente is recommended over mushy consistencies since the "al dente" texture has a lower glycemic index (meaning it does not spike blood glucose levels quite as much.)
However, remember that the glycemic load of a pasta meal is ultimately determined by what else you are eating with your pasta.
If, for example, your pasta dinner contains some protein, fat, and fiber (i.e.: whole wheat pasta with meatballs and parmesan cheese), those additional components will help slow down digestion and lessen the sharp spike in blood sugar levels.
As far as white bread and pasta made with refined flour are concerned -- yes, they are basically identical from a nutritional standpoint (the main exception being that one ounce of bread has roughly 150 to 200 milligrams of sodium, while most dry pasta is sodium-free.)
It's not that white bread and pasta are inherently unhealthy, but rather that, compared to whole wheat varieties, they are nutritionally inferior.