As a food-conscious consumer, you may care deeply about the source of the fresh foods you purchase but do you give the same attention to a box of dried pasta? Do you know where the flour for that pasta came from? Can it be traced to one source? Do you know how it was milled? And if you want to be healthier and buy the whole-wheat variety, while it may say whole grain, are you sure it’s actually 100 percent whole grains?
Now there are four Bay Area companies offering full transparency when it comes to that ubiquitous pantry staple: dried pasta, with each company offering its unique spin.
Bob Klein was a pioneer when he founded Community Grains in 2010. As the co-owner of Oakland's Oliveto Restaurant, he developed relationships with farmers he knew and trusted, and it was from them that he sourced his meat and produce for the restaurant. A self-described “ethics nut” for transparency, he wanted to apply the same strict standards to the wheat he bought, for the restaurant’s pizzas and pastas.
Five years later, Community Grains 100 percent whole grain pastas are sold at Whole Foods and are even served in Oakland Unified School District’s macaroni and cheese lunches. It's also sold online.
“The vision is immense, but the actual is teeny-weeny,” he said.
Klein was frustrated that numerous companies touted their products as “whole grain,” when in fact, the bran, germ and endosperm did not all end up in the final product. In many products, specifically white flour, the bran and germ are separated in the milling process and then sifted back together, and vitamins are frequently added to fortify it.
“We buy California conventional wheat and mill it in a special way, so that all the bran and all the germ is in it,” he said. “It’s milled finely so that the bran is not chunky and doesn’t get stuck in your teeth. We make really good pasta out of it, pasta that can be used in many cases, with as good results as all-purpose white flour.”
In Klein’s case, he decided local was a higher priority than organic, and while much of the wheat he gets is indeed organic, there is a lack of fully organic mills and storage facilities in California to handle it, thus much of his product isn’t certified.
However, he started an “Identity Preserved” label, in which a box of fettucine gives the Item: Organically Grown IP Fettucine, Breed of wheat: Hard Amber Durum; Variety: Iraqi Durum-Landrace, Grown: CCOF Certified Full Belly Farm, Yolo County, CA, Harvest date: September 2013, Cleaning & storage: Fully Belly Farm, Milled: Whole Milled Dec 2014, Woodland, CA. There’s also a bar code where you can scan for more information, with the hashtag #knowyourwheat.
Even though many people know that eating whole grains are healthier for them, Klein says there’s no regulation on products that say “whole wheat,” and they may not actually be whole grains at all. “These companies don’t want to tell you what’s in there. Shouldn’t the government make them? They should, but they don’t.”
So while some might not care about that level of detail, Klein is one who does. “Whatever the information is, companies should provide that level of information,” he maintains. “You may not care but someone does care and transparency is so essential.”
Also based in Oakland, Baia Pasta, founded by two native Italians, Renato Sardo and Dario Barbone, came along a year later (Baia means “Bay” in Italian.)
Baia is available in many specialty markets and larger grocery chains around the Bay Area, as well as two Oakland farmers' markets, in its own store, and online.
While all of the pasta is made in the company’s facility in Jack London Square, most of the company’s flour comes neighboring states.
Given that Sardo worked for the Slow Food organization for many years, he made organic flour a priority over local, though he says he hopes that eventually they can source more flour from California (their kamut comes from Moore’s Flour Mill in Redding, but for now, that’s all that is local).
While Central Milling has grown quite a bit since they began working together, Sardo went to visit its operation when starting out.
“You need to have a certain volume to demand customized production for you, but the fact that they have an organic facility was important to us,” said Sardo.
Given how difficult it is to find organically-grown durum wheat in California, they had to look further afield for it, he said.
While Sardo said he and his partner are happy with the flavor profiles in their pasta varieties, the one thing Central Milling does not offer is full traceability. They do, however, guarantee that all their flour is American and organic.
Eventually, Sardo said they hope to have their own mill. That would “allow us to have vertical integration, and direct connection with the farmers. I don’t know if we have to do it ourselves, or if someone can do it for us. There are many passionate people who are starting to get interested in these things,” he said.
Sardo explained that making dried pasta is more complicated than some other foods made from flour, since the pasta will break easily when extruded if the particles of the flour aren’t uniform.
“This is a complicated process,” he said. “We need more consistency than a baker that makes cakes, or even someone who makes fresh pasta and cuts it by hand.”
Truly Grains is the latest product to enter the market, and so far, has only one product, whole grain fusilli made with Sonora Wheat, grown organically in California. Made in Greenbrae, the pasta is available in specialty markets in Marin and San Francisco.
Jennifer Frank, a co-founder of Truly Grains, started noticing signs of gluten sensitivity, as did her husband. “It’s really past a tipping point,” she said. “The allergy thing is out of control, and everyone thinks they’re allergic to it.”
By connecting with Monica Spiller, of the Mountain View-based Whole Grain Connection, Frank and fellow co-founder Daniela Greville came to believe one field of thought about gluten intolerance; that it's not the gluten itself that so many people are intolerant of, it’s the way in which most wheat is processed today.
Truly Grains was founded on the premise of providing products that were grown and milled in the methods used before industrial agriculture.
They found out about Coke Farm, in San Juan Batista (in Monterey County) growing organic Sonora wheat, and began there.
The pair are committed to using only organic wheat, only ancient varieties, and it must be stone-milled. The flour is shipped to Sonoma county, where the pasta is made.
Truly Grains is not intending to only be a pasta company; they are now looking into producing crackers and pasta from sourdough starter.
“Using a wild yeast or sourdough starter also makes it more easily digestible,” said Frank.
(And while an internet search yielded the website of a Cupertino-based company called Ancient Agro offering whole grain pastas from locally-grown varieties of ancient wheat, its founder didn’t make himself available for this article.)
So how do these locally-made pastas taste? Obviously, pasta is usually coated with some kind of sauce, and we didn’t want to mask the taste of the pasta itself, so we cooked each one al dente, and sprinkled it with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.
Comparing them was not easy, as they all tasted like, well, whole-wheat pasta (which we eat often at home, saving the white stuff for special occasions in restaurants). Texturally, Baia’s won out, even though the Kamut variety was denser than some of the others, which we liked. All of Baia’s had a wonderful toothsome quality. Flavor-wise, we enjoyed the taste of Truly Grains, and we especially admired Community Grains’ Old World White Spaghetti, for being a whole grain product that masked itself as something made from white flour.
Conclusion: While definitely having that whole wheat pasta taste (which not all people like) there was not a significant enough difference for us to recommend one brand over the others. So, if you are inclined to support local food businesses and appreciate the commitment to using quality whole grain ingredients, try these three brands out and share your opinions in the comments.