Pasta: the influence of process and formulation on its properties, as discussed in scientific studies

8 October 2016 Off By Pastaria

A review of some of the most interesting studies available in scientific literature which take into consideration the effects production process and different recipes have on the properties of pasta.

by Eleonora Carini e Elena Curti (Centro Interdipartimentale SITEIA, Università di Parma)

Pasta is a food product that is widely popular, including outside of Italy. Although composed of only two ingredients—semolina and water in its most basic formulation—its special characteristics are due to the two major variables that can be acted upon to shape its properties. One of these variables is the production process which involves the transformation of the mix of the proper amount of ingredients into the final product through the phases of dough formation, shaping and drying (for dried pasta). The other variable is the formulation, or recipe. In fact, the basic formulation of pasta can be modified through the addition of other ingredients to give it specific characteristics, for example enrichment of certain nutrients to boost its nutritional value.

This article will present some scientific studies that examine the effect of process and various formulations on the properties of pasta. The effect of raw materials on pasta quality will also be examined to a certain extent.

Raw materials and process

Although the selection of raw materials and technologies for the production process in pasta-making could be considered well established know-how, they have been the subject of a number of not particularly recent scientific studies, which we summarize briefly below.

In semolina selection, the chemical composition and morphological characteristics of the starch crystals are important. Soh et al. (2006) studied the effect of amylose content and type-B crystals on texture qualities and cooked quality (water absorption during cooking) for spaghetti. They observed that durum wheat with a higher content of type-B crystals and amylose in the amylaceous fraction can contribute to improve pasta quality. Grant et al. (2004) studied the difference between spaghetti produced with traditional durum wheat semolina and “waxy” semolina (in essence, where the amylaceous fraction only contains amylopectin), in order to assess the effect of the two starch components. Spaghetti made from only waxy semolina was shown to have a texture that is unacceptable, thus suggesting that it is the amylopectin that more greatly influences stickiness and firmness during cooking of the pasta, and the optimal amylose/amylopectin ratio in semolina should be taken into consideration to obtain good-quality pasta.

As is known, the quality and quantity of proteins in semolina also have a strong influence on pasta quality. One study (Ames et al., 2003) compared selected cultivars of durum wheat containing very strong gluten with conventional cultivars, noting that to obtain a better pasta texture, gluten strength would seem to be a factor that is less important than protein content (and, therefore, than the quantity of gluten formed). In particular, in cultivars characterized by very strong glutens but with a lower protein content, the pasta produced had a worse texture than pasta made with durum wheat with higher protein content. Another study (Bruneel et al., 2010) compared 16 types of spaghetti in terms of the temperature of starch gelatinization and starch swelling, and the content of sodium dodecyl sulfate-extractable proteins (SDSEP), an indicator of protein polymerization following the drying process (Lagrain et al., 2005). Improved pasta quality was observed in samples with greater SDSEP content, lower gelatinization temperature and less swelling, indicating that the protein polymerization process during drying is decisive in obtaining pasta with high-quality and performance during cooking.

As regards the variable of the production process in pasta-making, among the most important parameters for obtaining quality pasta are extrusion and drying conditions.

During the extrusion phase, hydration of the dough as it enters, temperature and the applied shearing force can influence pasta quality. One study (Abecassis et al., 1994) indicated that greater hydration of the semolina and a higher speed of the screw in the extrusion chamber can have a positive impact on pasta cooking quality (enhanced firmness during cooking and rheological properties). On the contrary, too high pasta temperature as it exits the die plate could result in lower quality and worse cooking performance.

During the drying phase, the choice of process temperature, ranging from 60 °C (low) to 100 °C (high), impacts on both starch and proteins. High temperatures (90 °C) normally have a positive effect since they promote polymerization of the gluten proteins and the formation of larger protein clusters, thus improving pasta quality and cooking performance (Singh and MacRitchie, 2004; Lamacchia et al., 2007), while also modifying the crystalline structure of the starch and gelatinization temperature (Zweifel et al., 2000).

In addition to drying temperature, another basic parameter with a major influence on pasta properties is the water content of the incoming product. Zweifel et al. (2003) studied the effect of the application of high temperatures (100 °C) in the various drying phases (and, therefore, on pasta with different water content) and they observed greater modification on the proteins, maintenance of a better protein network and less swelling of the starch granules, and pasta that was firmer and with less surface stickiness when high temperatures were applied during the final drying phase.

Similar results were also reported by De Noni and Pagani (2010), who analyzed, microscopically, a number of cooked pasta samples dried at high temperature, and observed complete protein coagulation and changes in the crystalline structure of the starch remaining in the cooked pasta, thus having a positive influence on its structure. In addition, the choice of high temperatures in the final drying phases is especially indicated in the case of semolina with low protein content in order to improve cooking performance (Güler et al., 2002; Cubadda et al., 2007).

Adding egg to fresh pasta gives it a yellower color and enhanced nutritional value, but at the same time also influences its characteristics and quality.

One study (Alamprese et al., 2005) assessed the effect of pasteurization on the protein network of fresh egg pasta. Samples of pasta were produced using pasteurized whole eggs, and these samples were subsequently subjected to one or two consecutive pasteurization treatments. Only after the double pasteurization treatment did pasta quality improve (greater elasticity and lower water absorption during cooking), causing the formation of a stronger protein network thanks to the creation of more disulfide bonds resulting from the presence of egg white. The intensity of the heat treatment, which affects protein interaction, is also important in fresh egg pasta, according to the study by Alamprese et al. (2008). The results of the study involving fresh egg lasagna indicated that heat treatment involving greater C0 (effect of cooking that takes into consideration the formation of Maillard compounds) results in improved rheological quality and cooking performance of the pasta, thanks to the presence of a protein network with stronger interaction. For the shaping process, greater thermal stress from extrusion compared with lamination can strengthen the pasta and increase water absorption during cooking, but also greater release of solids due to partial damage of the starchy phase (Zardetto and Dalla Rosa, 2009).

Turning to egg as a raw material, the albumen/yolk ratio was shown to have an inverse correlation to lipid content and a direct correlation to Young’s modulus and pasta strength [(tensile test); Alamprese et al., 2009]. Higher yolk content, bringing with it a higher lipid content, can actually weaken the gluten network and promote swelling of the starch granules and water absorption during cooking.

Effects of enriching pasta

Pasta is a product found in many regions of the world and is very popular with a large section of consumers because it is simple, easy to prepare and has great palatability, so it is a good candidate for being enriched through the addition of certain ingredients to increase its nutritional value. However, enrichment with other ingredients sometimes leads to an alteration in its quality because characteristics such as texture, color, cooking firmness and sensory quality can be influenced negatively. An interesting and very recent study-review by Canadian researchers (Mercier et al., 2016) undertook a meta-analysis of all major scientific data in the literature to assess the effect of pasta enrichment on its qualitative characteristics. The authors examined 66 relevant studies, 60% of which published subsequently to 2010, proof of the great scientific and commercial interest in the development of enriched pasta. The study looked at 32 quality-related characteristics that were grouped into seven categories: composition (estimated), dough properties (development time, stability, water absorption, gelatinization temperature, etc.), pasta properties before the drying phase (thickness or diameter following extrusion, water diffusion coefficient, etc.), cooking properties (optimum time, lost solids, increase in weight and volume), color (L values, a* and b* for uncooked and cooked pasta), mechanical properties (hardness, elasticity, stickiness) and sensory properties (appearance, consistency, flavor and overall acceptability). In addition, eleven process specifications were taken into consideration in the meta-analysis: type of ingredient used for enrichment and level of addition, type of wheat used, presence of additives (egg or emulsifiers), shaping method, diameter/thickness leaving the die, drying conditions (time, temperature and relative humidity) and dough hydration. The statistical analysis made it possible to render all these data homogeneous in order to carry out a statistical correlation and compare all the variables listed above. The most salient results of this review are grouped below according to the classification of the qualitative attributes of the pasta carried out by the authors. [hidepost]

Impact on pasta composition (estimated): the level of the ingredient added to enrich the pasta ranged from 0.25 to 50% (<30% in 90% of the studies considered). Lower enrichment (<2%) was attained with biomass from microalgae (Fradique et al., 2010, 2013), while higher levels were obtained with the addition of resistant starch or of chickpea, buckwheat, banana and soy flour (Aravind et al., 2013; Sabanis et al., 2006; Chillo et al., 2008; Agama-Acevedo et al., 2009; Baiano et al., 2011, respectively).  Enrichment influenced the amount of total fiber and protein in the pasta. Specifically, greater protein content (33.3% of dry weight) was obtained with enrichment using 50% peanut flour (Howard et al., 2011) while greater total fiber with enrichment using 30% wheat bran (Aravind et al., 2012). Pasta enrichment with legume flour increased protein content by 1.8% (of pasta dry weight) for enrichment levels <15% and 4% (of pasta dry weight) for higher enrichment levels.

Impact on dough properties: dough development time increased on average by 1.28 minutes in enriched pasta, compared with conventional pasta. The competition between added ingredients and gluten proteins for water, as well as the influence of added ingredients on the reorganization of gluten subunits, were identified as the causes of this increase in dough development time when added ingredients were present. Water absorption in the dough measured with the farinograph (500 BU) increased on average by 5% (g/100 g of dough) because enrichment generally increases the non-gluten protein content of pasta. Such proteins compete with gluten proteins for water during the dough formation phase, a factor that could increase the amount of water required for optimal hydration of the gluten network. Enrichment using legume flours increased the gluten index (ratio between strong gluten and total gluten), which indicates that the flour components remain physically trapped in the gluten network, thus increasing the dough mass found in the Glutomatic test.

Impact on properties during the drying phase: the pasta water content following the extrusion phase generally does not change with product enrichment. Enrichment results in an increase in the diameter or thickness of the pasta of approx. 0.02 mm following drying at temperatures >60 °C, while no effect was noted in temperatures <60 °C. Enrichment also results in an increase in the water diffusion coefficient during the drying process due to an increase in porosity caused by partial destructuring of the gluten when added ingredients are present (Villeneuve et al., 2013). Once again, this aspect was more significant in temperatures >60 °C because of faster water evaporation at higher temperatures. Therefore, the drying process is accelerated (with the desired residual water content being equal) when ingredients are added to enrich the product, compared with conventional pasta.

Impact on pasta cooking properties: in at least half of the studies included in the meta-analysis, pasta cooking properties were taken into consideration. Enrichment resulted in a decrease, on average, of 0.42 minutes of optimal cooking time, an effect attributable to a change in the chemical composition and microstructure of the pasta when other ingredients are added. Enrichment has a “diluting” effect in the starch component of pasta, and this can reduce the water content required for starch gelatinization. Enrichment could also reduce glutenins content and increase components with a lesser molecular weight which require less time for hydration (Vernaza et al., 2012). Alternately, enrichment could partially destructure the gluten, thus facilitating water penetration (Chillo et al., 2008). Enrichment resulted in an increase in the solids lost during cooking by 14% compared with conventional pasta. This effect was similar both in the case of enrichment using legume flours and ingredients with high fiber content. In the case of fiber, the impact on lost solids was fiber-specific: enrichment with inulin significantly increased the solids lost during cooking, while enrichment with other ingredients containing fiber, such as beta-glucans, guar gum and resistant starch, had no effect or only slightly reduced pasta cooking firmness (Tudorica et al., 2002; Manno et al., 2009; Aravind et al., 2012, 2013). These different fiber-specific effects could reflect two opposite effects of the presence of fiber. Some studies suggest that fiber can have a “corrective” effect on the microstructure of pasta, making an active contribution to the development of the network or through the physico-structural incorporation (Koca and Anil, 2007; Sabanis and Tzia, 2010; Mert et al., 2014). Others suggest that fiber can have a diluting effect on gluten and that, because it has a high capacity to absorb water, can hinder proper gluten hydration if there is insufficient water (Sivam et al., 2010). Unquestionably, the various chemical properties of the different types of fiber influence what their impact will be.

The average increase of the solids lost for enrichment less than 15% doubled when the drying temperatures were below 60 °C. At high drying temperatures the gluten is reinforced as a result of the greater formation of protein clusters that could reduce water penetration and prevent the starch granules from breaking (Zweifel et al., 2003). This suggests that high drying temperatures could be more suitable in the production of enriched pasta, as long as the ingredient used for enrichment is not heat-sensitive and remains bioavailable after drying.

Impact on color: color is also an important quality-related characteristic for consumers who look for this when they purchase a product. Pasta enrichment involves a reduction in the L (luminosity) parameter of the uncooked product, an aspect that is not positive because consumers prefer yellow, luminous coloring. Reduced luminosity in enriched pasta is caused in most cases by the presence of added ingredients that are generally darker in color, the non-enzymatic browning of reducing sugars found in the added ingredients, and the oxidation of carotenoid pigments (Marconi et al., 2002; Alireza Sadeghi et al., 2008; Carini et al., 2009). Color modification is reduced if the product is dried at temperatures >60 °C since the dark coloring caused by the Maillard reaction during the process can partially mask the reduction in luminosity due to pasta enrichment. Enrichment also increases the a* value (red index) of uncooked pasta, and more noticeably with enrichment levels >15%. With enrichment, there is also a decrease in b* (yellow index) which, as with a*, is greater at drying temperatures <60 °C. The L, a* and b* parameters measured in uncooked pasta correlated significantly with the respective results in cooked pasta, thus indicating that the color of the cooked pasta can be accurately predicted from color measurement of uncooked pasta.

Impact on mechanical properties: hardness was seen to be correlated to Farinograph stability, and stickiness to dough development time, indicating that the parameters measured by the Farinograph are good indicators of the mechanical properties of the cooked product. Stickiness was negatively correlated to protein content since a lower protein level could increase water absorption and swelling of starch granules, thus causing the release of amylose, resulting in stickier pasta (Petitot et al., 2010).  Elasticity was correlated to optimal cooking time. Pasta enrichment decreases the optimal cooking time and pasta elasticity due to a partial destructuring of the gluten network and thus limiting the elastic properties of gluten (Tudorica et al., 2002).

Impact on sensory properties: the level of pasta enrichment was found to be negatively correlated to its overall quality, appearance and flavor, reflecting, therefore, lower acceptability of enriched compared to conventional pasta. The addition of 15% banana flour (Agama-Acevedo et al., 2009), 6% dried mushrooms, 15% Bengal gram flour (a chickpea flour used in Asian countries), 12 % defatted soy flour (Kaur et al., 2013) and 1% to 3% dehydrated microalgae (Zouari et al., 2011) to the pasta made it possible to obtain an enriched pasta that was slightly more acceptable than conventional pasta.  The reduction in organoleptic properties of enriched pasta was seen to be nothing or next to nothing with low levels of added ingredients. Specifically, 10% enrichment was considered the cut-off level below which organoleptic properties were similar to the conventional product. At higher levels of enrichment, the sensory properties depended on the specific formulation.

The study also showed a correlation between sensory properties and cooking properties. Pasta with high optimal cooking times and low solids loss during cooking generally exhibited better sensory properties. However, no correlation was found between pasta hardness and its sensory properties, indicating that color and cooking properties are more important in pasta acceptability for consumers.

After having reviewed all the key effects of pasta enrichment on quality parameters, and after having discovered that the latter are, in many cases, affected negatively, an obvious question arises: is it worth it? At the beginning, we wrote that the reasons people work to enrich pasta are nutritional ones, to which consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive. But is the higher nutritional value of enriched pasta something our bodies can actually use? In other words, are the bioactive molecules we include in these enriched formulations bioavailable to our bodies? In this field, research is still in its infancy and, above all, we lack in vivo experiments that could verify the actual bioavailability of these components. We await the response of science.


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