A firm family favourite, spaghetti bolognese is a meal you might not have given much consideration in regards to nutrition. While the exact origins of pasta remain hazy, like all great foods, it's only a matter of time before it becomes popular elsewhere. For this reason, pasta is now eaten all over the world.
There are hundreds of pasta dishes out there, but probably the best known and loved of the lot is Spaghetti Bolognese. The Brits may have adopted Chicken Tikka Masala as their national dish, but 'spag bol' is still immensely popular.
Meanwhile, the Aussies have gone one step further; spaghetti bolognese is now the meal cooked most often at home and ordered most often in Australian restaurants! Plenty of reason then, to place it under the nutrition spotlight...
Think of pasta, meat, cheese and sauce and the chances are you'll start wondering how on earth spaghetti bolognese can be healthy enough to be a nutritious meal.
This recipe is a perfect example of how a few tweaks here and there can improve a potential disaster into an almost perfectly balanced meal. You can make spaghetti bolognese a good choice in your nutrition plan. Not only for those in hard training, but also for those whose goal is to lose fat or maintain their weight.
When preparing spaghetti bolognese at home, all components can be adapted to improve the meal's nutrition, Don't worry though, the taste or texture will remain fine — you might even prefer some of the suggestions below.
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Most standard recipes for spaghetti bolognese combine pasta, minced beef, a tomato sauce and some cheese.
So let's go through each of these components and see what's on offer and how any improvements can be made.
It wouldn't be spaghetti bolognese without pasta
At the heart of this dish is pasta, which as most of you will already know is an excellent source of muscle fuelling carbohydrates.
After all, it's no secret that many endurance athletes incorporate pasta regularly into their meal plans. Pasta also supplies useful amounts of protein and is virtually devoid of fat, explaining its popularity among athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
However, most pasta bought in the supermarkets and served in restaurants is white pasta, which as good as it is, doesn't match the nutritional qualities of unrefined whole-wheat pasta. Just this one simple swap the next time you make spaghetti bolognese will mean you supercharge the nutrition.
There's not only more fibre in whole-wheat pasta, but the vitamin, mineral and essential fatty acid content is also significantly higher too — check out the table below for a comparison.
Yes, it's a little more textured than white pasta, but many people actually end up preferring the whole-wheat variety once they've eaten it a few times. And while you're at it, why not go for the organic whole-wheat version? The price premium over non-organic is usually minimal and not only does organic produce tend to be richer in trace minerals, but you've also got the added comfort of knowing that your pasta is residue-free.
Meat - an important source of nutrients in spaghetti bolognese
Most spaghetti bolognese recipes use minced beef for the 'bolognese' part of the dish.
Lean beef is an excellent source of protein and is rich in B vitamins as well as minerals such as iron and zinc. However, much of the minced beef available is made from cheaper and fattier cuts of beef, which means that it contains plenty of non-essential saturated fat -good neither for hardworking muscles nor waistlines.
If you use beef, it's best to either purchase the leanest minced beef you can (check the labels for fat contents) or pre-boil the beef and drain off any excess fat before you add it to your bolognese sauce.
If you really want to keep the fat down, an even better option is to substitute the beef for minced turkey. For instance, turkey can have a fat content of less than 5%.
Once it's cooked, the texture's very similar to beef, and the tomato sauce makes it hard to tell you're not eating beef. Try it for yourself, next time you make spaghetti bolognese, use turkey - you might not notice a change in taste, but your body will definitely notice a change in nutrition!
In fact, the only real difference with turkey mince is that when you've cleaned off your plate, you won't feel like your stomach has been lined with lead.
Depending on the recipe, most bolognese sauces are based on tomatoes and tomato paste, chopped onions, seasoning and maybe some other diced vegetables too.
These ingredients are rich in a number of vitamins such as vitamin A and are also a good source of antioxidants - for example lycopene from tomatoes. However, some recipes include quite a bit of butter and/or cream, which adds unwanted saturated fat.
But you can easily get around this by using just a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to fry the onions and substituting the cream and butter for a little extra tomato paste and water.
If you opt for a ready-prepared sauce in a jar, be sure to check the labels carefully.
Many brands not only contain plenty of fat like vegetable oil, but also come with a good slug of added sugar and salt too. This is because using lots of tomatoes and fresh herbs and seasoning to make a sauce is expensive. By adding more water and starch, and then making up for the resulting bland taste with extra salt, sugar and fat, manufacturers make more profit. You have been warned.
The finishing touch to any spaghetti bolognese dish is a good sprinkling of cheese, and it also improves the nutrition value of the meal.
Not only does it perfectly complement the pasta/sauce combination, but a bit of cheese also adds to the nutritional value of the dish by supplying useful amounts of calcium.
However, the type of cheese you choose can make a substantial impact on the total fat content of the meal as a whole.
Full-fat cheddar supplies well over 8 grams of fat per ounce, whereas half-fat cheddar will supply around 4 grams.
But if you want to really keep the fat down without sacrificing the taste, there's always Parmesan cheese. Its strong taste means that you only need a small amount to produce that all-important cheesy flavour.
Making spaghetti bolognese nutritionally complete
Make this dish with whole-wheat spaghetti, turkey mince and a low-fat homemade sauce, and you've already got yourself a meal that is rich in complex carbohydrates, protein and a number of nutrients and yet which is also low in fat.
But how good is the nutrition of spaghetti bolognese? Can it be made any better?
Unlike many 'meat and grain dishes', the inclusion of cheese in a spaghetti bolognese makes good the shortfall in calcium.
In fact, the only real gap in the nutrient list is that of vitamin C.
A good way to boost the C content is to add freshly chopped tomatoes to the bolognese sauce in the final stages of preparation. Raw tomatoes are rich in vitamin C (a couple of average-sized tomatoes contain just under 20mgs of vitamin C - that's a third of the daily recommended intake) and if they're cooked lightly and briefly, the vitamin C losses are minimal and they'll retain much more flavour to boot.
And if you want to further improve the C content, you can always serve your spag bol with a nice green side salad, which after all is the way the Italians would prefer it!
Nutrient content of white vs. whole-wheat pasta
Note the higher levels of fibre, minerals and B vitamins in whole pasta. Organic whole pasta could be expected to have higher mineral levels still. A simple way to improve the nutrition in spaghetti bolognese - change your spaghetti.
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Pantothenic acid (B5)
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2019). Australian Food Composition Database – Release 1. Canberra: FSANZ. Available at www.foodstandards.gov.au
So there you have it
With a few adjustments here and there, spaghetti bolognese can be a regular part of you and your family's nutrition plan.
If you fancy a go at making it yourself but don't know where to start you can follow my recipe instructions. As always, I've got you covered!
Perhaps the meal I make most often; fettuccine bolognese is warming and satisfying when it's cold outside yet fresh and fulfilling during the summer months