Is Orzo Pasta Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say
Often mistaken for rice because of its shape, orzo is actually a type of pasta. Orzo falls into the category of small-shaped pasta known as "pastina." It's used widely in soups, but it's also great for salads. But is this beloved pasta healthy? Here's what dietitians have to say.
What Is Orzo?
Orzo is traditionally made with semolina flour which is made from durum wheat. This hard variety of wheat with a high protein content produces an often coarse flour, which makes it ideal for pastas, such as orzo. But its nutritional value depends on how it was processed. Whole-wheat orzo pasta is typically made with stone-ground durum wheat, meaning the bran, germ and endosperm are all intact. Finer, more processed white durum white, removes the nutritive bran and germ.
Here is the nutrition breakdown for 2 ounces (56 grams) of orzo pasta, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 210
- Protein: 7 grams
- Total Fat: 1 gram
- Total Carbohydrates: 44 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Calcium: 0 micrograms
- Iron: 0.7 microgram
- Vitamin C: 0 mg vitamin C
This nutrition information may vary depending on the manufacturer.
Health Benefits of Orzo
Navigating the sometimes murky waters of the health benefits of pasta can be challenging. Some health proponents cast it in a negative light, proclaiming that it's a food that lacks nutritional benefits, causing blood sugar spikes that lead to diabetes and heart disease. But that misinformation is damaging because claiming that pasta is "unhealthy," simply isn't true. Here's the truth on why orzo can be a nutritious food.
Fuels Your Body and Brain
Pasta, including orzo, fits into a healthy eating pattern. When consumed in appropriate amounts, it can be an incredible addition to the foods you're already enjoying. Laura Geraty, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor and chef instructor agrees. "Carbohydrates like whole grains, breads and pasta serve many important roles in our diet. Most importantly, they are our body's preferred energy source and our brain's sole energy source," she says. Geraty recommends that half of the grains you consume each day should be whole grains, which leaves plenty of space for delicious more refined grain foods like orzo and other pasta shapes.
Keeps You Fuller for Longer
In more good news, there are whole-grain versions of orzo available. They can be somewhat harder to find, so an online grocer or retailer is a good option. Whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber that help reduce your risk of developing certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Even more so, fiber slows down your digestion and helps you feel fuller for a long time. Choosing whole-wheat orzo will also help you meet the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendation of 3 servings (or 48 grams) of whole grains each day and of 28 to 34 grams of fiber.
Invites You to Try Other Foods
Pasta such as orzo pairs nicely with other whole foods thanks to its fairly neutral flavor. That neutrality makes orzo a great base for almost limitless ingredient combinations, which makes bulking up the nutrition of the dish easy and fun. For example, use a simple olive oil and vinegar dressing and add chopped or sliced nuts, fresh, canned or jarred vegetables, and even a bit of hard cheese for a nourishing salad. Or roast a pint of cherry tomatoes with garlic and olive oil and toss it with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese for a delicious dish. Even last night's vegetables mixed with orzo create a tasty meal.
How to Enjoy It
Because of its size and shape, orzo can be a great addition to many of your favorite dishes. Its short shape means it can easily fit in your soup spoon along with other ingredients. Geraty loves it as an addition to any soup—chicken, vegetable or legume-based. To add it to your soup recipe, first reference the package cooking directions she says. Typically adding the uncooked orzo during the last 6 to 8 minutes of cooking is sufficient for cooking it without overdoing it. Or if you're looking for a great recipe, try this Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup with Kale or this White Beans Soup with Tomato and Shrimp.
Or consider cooking up a big batch of orzo to create a fabulous pasta salad or freeze and save it for another use. Cool it completely, then label it and use it within three months. Thaw and reheat then toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and fresh, chopped herbs for an easy weeknight side to serve alongside chicken or seafood.
The Bottom Line
Orzo is a type of pasta that can be a great addition to your recipe repertoire, especially when consumed with a diet rich in other whole foods. If possible, choose whole grain varieties for the added vitamins, minerals and fiber. Try it in soups, salads and other side dishes, and pair it with vegetables, herbs and plant-based proteins to make it a meal.