World Pasta Day & Congress: the world of pasta looks to the future

11 December 2015 Off By Pastaria

Three days of meetings, ideas, reflection and discussion: once again, pasta was the star at the recent World Pasta Day & Congress held in Milan at the end of October.

the Editorial staff

Perhaps it is no accident that the dinner concluding World Pasta Day was organized to take place at the Peck Restaurant at Expo on the top floor of the Italy Pavilion. Up there, on the terrace looking out over the Tree of Life and the crowd of visitors below, pasta was in its element: protagonist of a Universal Exposition whose theme was “Feeding the Planet. Energy for Life”.

Presumptuous? Not at all. The World Pasta Day and World Pasta Congress which took place this past October 25-27 in Milan demonstrated that pasta has everything it takes to meet the nutritional and sustainability challenges that our globalized world has set.

Taking part in the three days in Milan were pasta manufacturers, scientists, opinion leaders, economists and representatives of government and the media from around the world, invited by the International Pasta Association (IPO) and the Italian Association of Confectionery and Pasta Industries (AIDEPI). While World Pasta Day was hosted as part of Expo with the special sponsorship of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO, the Congress was held over the two days that followed at the Rho Fairgrounds as part of Host 2015, the no. 1 trade fair in the foodservice, retail, mass distribution and hotel sector.

The AIDEPI and IPO challenges

The three days of meetings, discussions and networking were moderated by Alex Thomson, journalist for Britain’s Channel 4 News. “I would like to thank the organizers,” said Thomson, “for their sense of humor in having invited an Englishman to moderate a conference on pasta.” In fact, the choice of Thomson was a strategic one to launch a profound message for today that pasta is increasingly becoming—at an ever-faster pace—an international product.

“Expo is a tremendous showcase for Italy and the perfect and symbolic place to look to the future,” said AIDEPI president Paolo Barilla. “Ours is an age-old profession, but we must also look to the future responsibly, attempting to seize the opportunities that arise but without forgetting tradition, of course.” And it was on the concept of responsibility that Barilla concentrated: pasta has all the characteristics—first and foremost its accessibility—to play a leading role in the challenge of respect for our planet and future generations. “Our ambition is to provide new value content to the words ‘good’ and ‘quality’,” he stressed.

In the conference keynote, IPO president Riccardo Felicetti reviewed the history of World Pasta Day, from the very first one held in Naples in 1998, and the first World Pasta Congress which took place in 1995. In particular, he stressed the role of pasta as the “food of the future”, a role also recognized by UNESCO which sponsored the event. He also noted that the qualities of pasta have been called into question more than once. “For example, in the past, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, father of the Futurist movement, believed that pasta rendered people less dynamic and slowed the drive towards modernity, but then appeared in a photo devouring a plate of spaghetti.” More recently, pasta has been attacked by supporters of high-protein diets which has contributed to creating a real phobia of carbohydrates (carbophobia). According to Felicetti, these are the false myths that must be fought because “they unjustifiably discredit a product that is excellent from the standpoint of both health and sustainability”. [hidepost]

Prejudices and the specter of gluten-free

The battle against the false myths tied to pasta was one of the main themes of the three-day event held at the end of October. For some time, IPO and AIDEPI—together with other international pasta manufacturer associations—have been concentrating on a press campaign aimed at fighting these prejudices. In fact, many articles were published even leading up to the World Pasta Day and Congress, aimed at highlighting “the 10 false myths about pasta”.

One of the most widely-held prejudices, especially in the United States, is that gluten, for some strange reason, is bad for you. As a result, on a wide range of foods in stores on the other side of the Atlantic, the words “gluten-free” have begun appearing on labels, as if this indicated a product that was healthier or more natural. “In the United States, only one person out of five who eats gluten-free actually needs to eliminate gluten from his or her diet,” explained Sara Bear-Sinnot, president of Oldways, a non-profit organization based in Boston that promotes healthy eating. This says a lot about the lack of knowledge about food and the power of false marketing that contributes to spreading ignorance rather than awareness. In the United States, Ms. Bear-Sinnot continued, this terror about gluten also took hold as a result of the spread in the early years of the new millennium of the Atkins diet which calls for the elimination of carbohydrates in favor of protein and fats, and further grew with the appearance of eating habits that favored proteins.

The health benefits of pasta

“The recipe for combating these prejudices we have here at home,” said food scientist Kantha Shelke. In essence, there is no sense in searching for the devil elsewhere when the real challenge is to capitalize on the treasure we have in our hands. And it is from this standpoint that Oldways and IPO have decided to make use of science to promote the beneficial properties of pasta. Working with experts from 13 different countries, following World Pasta Day 2010 held in Rio, they signed a Healthy Pasta Meal Scientific Consensus Statement. Following further scientific research, additional information has been added to the Statement and will be translated in all languages for publication (see the article, The Truth about Pasta. Scientists agree pasta is a healthy food on page 48):

1. Scientific research increasingly supports the importance of total diet, rather than individual foods.

2. Pasta is a key component of many of the world’s traditional healthy eating patterns, such as the scientifically-proven Mediterranean Diet. Most plant-based dietary patterns help prevent and slow progression of major chronic diseases and confer greater health benefits than current Western dietary patterns.

3. Many clinical trials confirm that excess calories, and not carbohydrates, are responsible for obesity. Diets successful in promoting weight loss can emphasize a range of healthy carbohydrates, protein and fat. All these three macronutrients, in balance, are essential for designing a healthy, individualized diet anyone can follow for their whole life. Moreover, very low carbohydrate diets may not be safe, especially in the long term.

4. Pasta is satiating and keeps you fuller longer. A pasta meal can be moderate in its calorie content, assuming the portion is correct and the dressing-topping is not calorie-rich.

5. At a time when obesity and diabetes have a high prevalence around the world, pasta meals and other low-glycemic index foods may help control blood sugar and weight especially in overweight people. Glycemic index is a factor that impacts the healthfulness of carbohydrate-rich foods.  There is a beneficial effect in the way pasta is made. The process of manufacturing reduces its glycemic response. Whole grain pasta, which provides more fiber, is also a good choice.

6. Pasta is an affordable, healthy choice available in almost all societies. Promoting the affordability and accessibility of pasta meals can help overcome the misperception that healthy foods are too expensive.

7. Healthy pasta meals are a delicious way to eat more vegetables, legumes and other healthy foods often under-consumed.  Pasta is a way to introduce other Mediterranean diet foods (other cultural traditions), especially for children and adolescents.

8. Pasta meals are enjoyed in cultural traditions worldwide. As they are like a canvas, they are versatile and easily adaptable to national/regional seasonal ingredients.

9. The general population can eat pasta and should not choose a gluten-free product if not affected by a gluten-related disorder correctly diagnosed.  For those with gluten sensitivities or allergies, or celiac disease, there are gluten-free alternatives.

10. Pasta is a simple plant-based food, and has a low environmental impact.

11. Pasta consumption is suitable for people who do physical exercise and particularly in sports. Pasta, as with other cereal foods, provides carbohydrates and is also a source of protein. Pasta may be used alone or lightly seasoned before training or combined with other foods after training, in order to improve physical performance. High protein and low carbohydrate diets are discouraged in active people.

12. Doctors, nutritionists and other health professionals should educate the consumer to choose varied and balanced pasta meals for good health.

“It is no accident if at the end of many sports events pasta parties are organized,” said Michelangelo Giampietro, specialist in sports medicine and professor at La Sapienza University in Rome and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. “Everybody benefits from a good dose of carbohydrates.” “Carbohydrates nourish the brain and if you don’t eat enough, your brain suffers,” said Pietro Migliaccio, president of the Italian Society of Food Science. “Every carbohydrate-based food increases the level of sugars in the blood but not all foods provide the same glycemic response and that of pasta is 30-40% less than other carbohydrates,” Gabriele Riccardi of the Federico II University of Naples stressed. Many scientists and nutritionists added their statements in support of pasta, confirming its absolute healthiness.

Further confirmation was given by scientific studies that analyze those areas of the world where life expectancy is very high and where those who are 80 live and look like 50-year-olds. “In all these places,” said David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center of Griffin Hospital, Yale University in a video, “the diet is based on vegetables and grains.”

Pasta and accessibility

One of the properties that makes pasta most suitable for meeting the challenges of tomorrow is unquestionably its accessibility. In a world increasingly caught up in the contradictions between obesity and malnutrition, this means a healthy diet at low cost. Pasta is cheap, stays fresh naturally and provides a sense of fullness. It is around these principles that a chef has created an empire of solidarity. His name is Bruno Serato and during World Past Day he received an award from IPO and AIDEPI for having created Caterina’s Club, a unique restaurant in California where he offers a plate of pasta to all children in economic difficulty. The restaurant now has 22 branches throughout the United States and Caterina’s Club has also become the name of a foundation. Every day, about a thousand portions are served and to-date over a million servings have been prepared.

“Here I am!” said Serato coming down the stairs at World Pasta Day before his name was announced as the award winner, proof of his down-to-earth, no-frills approach to life. “It all began on April 18, 2005,” he told the audience, “when I met a  7-year-old child who couldn’t afford to eat dinner. My mother, Caterina, after whom I named the restaurant and the foundation, suggested I make him some pasta. And from that day on, I’ve never stopped.” Serato also took the opportunity to thank Barilla for having been the first pasta manufacturer to call him and offer tangible support. “The power of pasta is amazing!” he concluded, and over the days that followed he appeared as a guest on Italian TV shows and has recently been featured in a number of articles in the media.

Continuing the theme of solidarity and the power of pasta in the social arena, was Father Gaetano Greco, chaplain of the Casal del Marmo Juvenile Detention Center and founder of the Borgo Amico home for juvenile offenders in Rome. Father Gaetano has dedicated himself completely to a project supported by AIDEPI called “Le mani in pasta” (Hands busy with pasta), whose objective is to reintegrate into the community young people “who made a mistake, but just because of this cannot be abandoned”, through the creation of a pasta factory inside prison. “Only work will empty the prisons,” he said, “and in making pasta there is a fundamental ingredient called love.” The project was also recently presented to Pope Francis Bergoglio.

A lot of pasta has also been donated to homeless shelters, which are increasingly frequented by Italians,” said Father Claudio Visconti, who sits on the national board of Caritas Italiana.

Pasta and sustainability

Sustainability—the impact food has on the planet from an ecological standpoint—was one of the central themes of Expo. So it was only natural that this be discussed during World Pasta Day, both in general terms and specifically in terms of pasta. In his remarks, Duncan Williamson, food policy manager at WWF UK, highlighted the food contradictions worldwide, with a large section of the population malnourished and the other part obese. “If we analyze the data, we see that 3.5 billion people are malnourished. This means that one person out of every two is malnourished,” he noted. Our food culture is in danger, if it is true that according to a recent study in Great Britain children have a hard time naming ten vegetables, and that the size of portions is increasing to the detriment of food quality. In Great Britain, Williamson continued, many people make excuses, saying they don’t have time to cook fresh, healthy foods, but then sit for hours in front of the TV, often watching food programs. According to Williamson, “food is too cheap” and this results in a high impact on the environment. Therefore, we must begin to pay for the real cost of food to make consumers more responsible in avoiding waste, increasing food awareness and reducing the environmental impact. By aiming for quality and biodiversity, we will also be surprised to discover that “a sustainable diet costs less than a non-sustainable one”.

Alessandra Luglio, a nutritionist from São Paulo, Brazil, was part of a team that wrote the “12 point” scientific document on pasta. According to Luglio, “when we talk about lifestyle, we’re talking about the environment. And there’s no such thing as healthy people on a sick planet”. Compared with other products, pasta has a much lower impact on the planet because it requires little land and little water. The ecological footprint of 80 grams of pasta is minimal, equal to 1 m² overall. In addition, pasta accounts for 3.5% of the value and 12.5% of the total volume of household waste, while in terms of environmental impact, the percentages decrease to just 6.6% of total CO2 emissions and 8.6% of water consumption. In addition, the materials used in its packaging are 100% recyclable.

Flexibility as opportunity

As everyone knows, pasta is not the same throughout the world. Because, just as Italians will never get used to eating ketchup on spaghetti or overcooked pasta, others in different parts of the world will continue to eat it according to their local traditions. Therefore, there is no point in taking out-dated and culturally “protectionist” positions. As  the president of AIDEPI Paolo Barilla said, pasta must “adapt to different cultures but without relinquishing its organoleptic properties and traditions”.

Kantha Shelke, a food scientist native of India, explained that as a little girl she ate a dish very similar to pasta: vermicelli with vegetables. As she explained, “pasta creates bridges between cultures”.

Fascinating the round-up of the myriad ways pasta is eaten in the United States, offered by food historian Francine Segan. After having shown pictures of various pasta shapes and explaining their origins, Segan projected photos of cone-shaped pasta, pasta hamburgers, pasta on pizza and pasta cupcakes.

Towards gluten-friendly pasta

Carmen Lamacchia from the University of Foggia (Italy) offered an extremely interesting presentation entitled Towards “gluten friendly” pasta: a new future of pasta for celiacs.

University of Foggia has developed a new and innovative detoxification method of gluten proteins from grains of cereals with the purpose to combine the nutritional and technological properties of wheat proteins with safety for celiac disease and gluten sensitive patients. Innovation lies in the application of microwave energy for few seconds to hydrated wheat kernels to reach a high temperature for short time as to enact a peculiar chemical reaction. This technology induces modifications of wheat gluten proteins reducing dramatically the immunogenicity of the most common epitopes involved in celiac disease so as not to be toxic to celiac patients without compromising both the nutritional and the technological properties necessary to process semolina in pasta and flours in bread and other baked goods. Pasta and more in general foodstuffs made with these detoxified flours is the much-desired dietary therapeutic alternative to offer celiac patients based on high nutritional, safe and tasty wheat products. The detoxified flour obtained with this method can be considered a completely new and disruptive paradigm in the celiac disease therapy ensuring not only physical but also psychological and economical well-being of the celiac patients. “Gluten Friendly” flours for its characteristics will be used for the production of food with superior sensory and nutritional properties not only for the diet of patients with gluten correlated disorders (intolerant and sensitive to the gluten) but for the diet of all. It can be envisaged an extensive production of pasta and foodstuffs made with detoxified wheat flour that could be commonly consumed not only by people suffering gluten intolerance, but also by the rest of the population. Widespread diffusion of such products could have the goal, in a totally innovative way, of reducing the immune sensitization of gluten and likely, decreasing the incidence of celiac disease.

The future

But what does the future hold for pasta? Chef Massimo Bottura, owner of the Osteria Francescana in Modena, believes it will be an alliance between chefs and farmers: “As I see it, a chef must enter the kitchen with dirt on his hands. Pasta will evolve if we unite the skills of farmers with those of chefs. We know about flavors and they know the land, and we can work together, sharing the same language in the name of research, sustainability and taste.” Bottura, who calls himself a pasta-lover, related that his first experiences in the kitchen took place around the kitchen table with his grandmother making tortellini,  and since then he has never abandoned either the kitchen or pasta. “The best thing about pasta is that plates always come back clean,” he said.

In general, the watch-words to emerge during these three days about the future were accessibility, flexibility, responsibility, quality and sustainability.

Of course, for pasta to be able to seize the opportunities offered by the market and the world and translate them into action, there must be a suitable political and regulatory framework of support. Towards this, Stefano Firpo, General Director for Industrial policy, competitiveness and small and medium enterprises at the Ministry of Economic Development, stressed the importance of a “pasta steering committee” (previously discussed in this publication) that oversees the work of specific groups on such issues as Made in Italy for pasta, research, innovation and a supply chain approach for an improved product that is the result of close ties between the farming and manufacturing sectors.

Clearly, given its intrinsic nutritional qualities, its low environmental impact and sustainability, pasta cannot help but play a central role in the eating habits of tomorrow if we want to continue to have at heart our own well-being and the health of our planet.

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