Versatile, cheap and oh-so-easy to prepare, it’s not a surprise that polenta has grown in popularity across the globe from its humble beginnings in Northern Italy. It’s made by cooking ground cornmeal in salted water, which transforms it into a creamy side dish or breakfast – quite similar to porridge in consistency.
But is polenta healthy? Keep on reading to find out all the wonderful health benefits polenta has to offer.
What is polenta and where does it come from?
Pronounced poh-lehn-ta, polenta is a cornmeal concoction that started out as ‘peasant food’ in Northern Italy. Nowadays you will see it served up in all kinds of restaurants, including higher-end ones where polenta has earned a gourmet status – talk about moving up in the world!
Polenta nutrition breakdown
Serving size: 50g of raw polenta1
- Polenta calories: 177kcal
- Polenta protein: 3.5g
- Fat: 0.15g
- Carbohydrates: 39g
- Sugar: 0.2g
- Fibre: 2.4g
What are the health benefits of polenta?
Polenta is a complex carbohydrate with some extra nutrition to sweeten the deal.
Although polenta is made from corn, it’s not the same as the sweet corn on the cob variety that you stick on a BBQ. This corn is far starchier.
A great alternative to refined carbs like white bread and pasta, polenta takes longer to break down in your digestive system, which can help you stay feeling fuller for longer and provide long-lasting energy to use throughout the day.
Low in sugar
Although polenta is pretty carb-heavy, it is naturally low in sugar. This is a great combination as you will get the benefits from its impressive carbohydrate content, without having all the excess sugar that often comes along with high-carb foods.
A decent source of plant protein
Plants have protein too, and while polenta might not have the highest plant protein content, every little counts. As you can see from the nutritional information above, a 50g (raw) serving contains 3.5g of protein by itself – if you just cook it with plain old water. If you use cow’s milk or plant milk you can increase the protein even more.
Polenta is usually served up as a side anyway, so when you add additional proteins like meat, fish, meat alternatives or other veggies, you’re serving yourself up a well-balanced meal.
Is polenta gluten free? Yes!
Corn is gluten free, so guess what? Polenta is gluten free, too! This means you can enjoy all the benefits of complex carbohydrates without having to get gluten involved.
Always make sure to study the ingredients carefully, as some manufacturers may add ingredients containing gluten. Some products may be manufactured in a factory that handles gluten-containing foods, too, so there may be a cross-contamination risk.
Rich in antioxidants
The cornmeal used to make polenta is naturally rich in protective compounds called antioxidants. Most of them are fall into the ‘carotenoid’ and ‘phenolic’ categories, which can help to protect cells in your body from oxidative stress and damage.
Should anyone avoid eating polenta?
Most people should be able to enjoy polenta without any negative side effects. As we have stated above, it is also gluten free, allowing it to be on most people’s menus – if you enjoy the unique taste that is!
How to cook polenta
One of the greatest things about polenta is its versatility. There are multiple ways you can enjoy this Italian go-to. Let us take you through some of the best ways how to make polenta.
If you want to enjoy polenta in the traditional Italian style, you’re in for a treat because it is so simple.
Bring your water or milk to the boil and continually whisk while you add the polenta. Keep stirring regularly and wait for the starch to break down into a smooth consistency, which should take about 50 minutes, depending on how course the cornmeal is. Then add a knob of butter, some grated cheese and plenty of your favourite seasonings to make it tasty. Simple!
If you’re stuck on time, you can also find ‘quick-cook’ polenta, which comes part-cooked and only takes minutes to cook. Don’t expect Italian grandmas to be happy about it though.
More ways of cooking with polenta
- Crunchy coating: try dusting polenta on potatoes, fish, tofu or meat before roasting for a satisfying crunch.
- Bread: if you haven’t tried cornbread yet, what are you waiting for! Polenta bread is essentially cornbread (if you use coarse cornbread). Most recipes call for a mix of polenta and standard bread flour, resulting in a flavourful and nicely crisp bread.
- Tart: polenta makes a great gluten-free tart base, try it out by following our vegan polenta and rosemary tart with roasted garlic and white beans
- Chips: if you have some traditional polenta left over, try pouring it into an oiled dish to set. You can then cut it up into chip-like shapes and oven cook them for an alternative to potato chips.
- Cake: we told you it was versatile! Polenta can make a fabulous alternative to regular flour in cakes. Get inspired with our manuka honey and orange polenta cake with pistachios.
Want some more inspo for cooking polenta? Check our our 12 polenta recipes
We hope that has got you clued up on all things polenta and inspired you to give this Italian favourite a try.
Last updated: 7 September 2020