Gluten-Free, Carb-Free Noodles

By Andrea Karim on 25 June 2010 (Updated 20 June 2011) 27 comments
Photo: Glass Noodles

Lowering my intake of carbohydrates has been one of the biggest struggles of my life. I don't have a particularly sweet tooth — if you told me I could never have cake or pie again, I'd be bummed, but I'd get over it. But giving up bread? Pasta? Rice noodles? Now THAT makes me want to weep.

There are lots of reasons why someone may want to cut carbs from their diet. Whether you're diabetic, trying to lower your blood sugar, or simply trying to lose a few pounds, limiting the number of carbohydrates that you take in on a daily basis can be a smart move.

However, it's really hard to cut back on carbohydrates, because carbohydrates power your brain. Eliminating carbs completely* (à la Atkins Diet) can leave you feeling foggy and dull, because your brain is struggling to find fuel to run on. Carbs make up the bulk of calories consumed the world over, but because most Westerners don't get much exercise, we turn those carbs into fat. And we get fatter and fatter.

Enter the low-carb diet craze of a few years back. Now, I'm not really fond of popular diets as prescribed by charismatic actors and sales people — I don't find that they work, and the particulars are so crazy and detailed that sticking to a published diet plan can be incredibly difficult. It's not to say that you can't draw inspiration from The South Beach Diet; it's just that I've never met anyone who has successfully lost and kept weight off while using it.

For me, losing weight will be a life-long struggle, and as a diabetic, finding low-carb foods to eat has been difficult from day one (a word to the wise: "wraps," or any food involving a tortilla, are not low in carbohydrates. Tortillas, especially flour tortillas, have as many carbs as a slice or two of bread). Particularly tough has been eliminating rice and rice noodles from my diet, because rice noodles are a very purified form of complex carbohydrate. They contain almost no fiber, no fat: just carbs. And they absorb into your blood stream very quickly, causing sudden and uncomfortable spikes in blood sugar.

But noodles taste so good! Or at least, the way they are prepared in Asian cuisine, cooked with chilies and lemongrass, or chicken and garlic, or made with spinach and soy sauce...(wipes drool from keyboard)...rice noodles are something that I truly missed.

Until now. Because about five months ago, I discovered something that seemed like a raw foodist diet secret: kelp noodles.

Now, some of you are saying to yourselves, "Kelp? But I don't LIKE seaweed." Fear not, my wussy paletted friends! Kelp noodles don't really taste like kelp. OK, if you take them straight out of the bag and eat them without rinsing or flavoring, you might get a hint of sea-flavor. But if rinsed thoroughly, then seasoned and cooked with your favorite flavors, kelp noodles, like rice noodles, simply absorb the flavor around them. The only difference is the kelp noodles retain a bit of a crunch instead of going completely limp and mushy after cooking.

I found my brand of kelp noodles, Sea Tangle, through a raw food vegan web site, and then was delighted to see that I could find them at my local co-op in the tofu and salsa section. At $2.75 a pack, they definitely aren't as cheap as rice noodles, but given that they (1) are filling and (2) contain a total of 18 calories per pack and (3) are incredibly versatile, I'm not complaining. They're also gluten-free, which means that people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance now have more options when facing down dinner (or lunch...or breakfast, I suppose). They are clear in color, crunchy (a water-filled crunch as opposed to a dry one), and soften with cooking. I would liken their texture, but not taste, to that of jellyfish. Don't let that gross you out! It's a really nice texture.

Discovering that there was such a thing as carb-free noodles opened my eyes to a world of awesome noodly goodness for diabetics. One of my favorite Korean dishes, chapchae (or japchae) involves yam noodles that are delicious, but total poison to a diabetic due to their high-carb, low-fiber content. However, just a couple aisles over in my Korean supermart are carb-free shirataki noodles, made from a tuber that is very similar to yams. Shirataki are more delicate than kelp noodles, but have a wonderful, soft mouthfeel. I love eating shirataki noodles in miso soup, or topped with my favorite peanut sauce at room temperature.

Slightly higher in calories (20 calories per serving) are tofu shirataki noodles, which cost less than $2 per pack at my Korean market, and are made with tofu and yam flour. Tofu shirataki noodles also come in a variety of shapes, so you can still have fettuccine with (almost) no carbs if that's what you're craving. I find that tofu shirataki noodles do well with the kinds of toppings you might traditionally associate with Italian cooking: pesto, marinara, Alfredo. They're not going to replace actual wheat pasta anytime soon, in the same way that a veggie burger doesn't really approximate the experience of a freshly grilled Angus burger - but if gluten (or carbs) are on your no-no list, I do recommend giving these a try.

Sea Tangle has an archive of kelp noodles recipes, but you can really treat any of these noodles the way you would any other kind of noodle. In fact, Seattle ramen restaurants offer shirataki noodles as a substitute for their ramen. Hey, nothing will match the awesomeness of fresh ramen noodles, but a diabetic's gotta eat, you know?

If you've never tried any of these low-carb options, I hightly recommend giving them a spin. If you HAVE tried them and have some recipes to share, please feel free to post or link to them in the comments!

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I have received no money, free samples, or payment of any kind to write this article.

** Several people who demand "accuracy" in their writing have pointed out that the Atkins Diet does not "entirely" eliminate carbohydrates from the diet, it just cuts them back to between 2-7 grams per serving.

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Guest's picture
twblues

I recently tried the tofu shirataki noodles, with meatballs and marinara sauce. Outstanding! and perfect for my low-carb diet.

Guest's picture
Lorenzo

This is great information, and I will be looking for these noodle varieties. One point I want to take issue with, though, is the idea of one's brain being sluggish on a low-carb diet. I never noticed that to be the case. Quite the contrary, when I overdo it on carbs is when my brain gets foggy.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's a fair point - people do feel tired when overdoing it on carbs because elevated blood glucose. But the same foggy feelings can be had when blood sugar is low. I know if I accidentally take too much insulin, I will feel tired and crabby for several minutes before I become aware of the low blood sugar problem.

People who go on the Atkins or other low-carb diets whose bodies are capable of burning fat (which turns into carbohydrates) for fuel might not feel tired or dull with few carbs in their diets. My body, however, didn't feel like burning fat at all, so I just sat around in a stupor for two weeks. :)

Andrea Karim's picture

I didn't mention this, because I don't know how common it is, but when I was on Atkins, I was perpetually hungry. I mean, I could literally eat a steak and a pound of shrimp and find myself doubled over in hunger an hour later. It was really weird.

I don't think the Atkins diet is particularly healthy, but this doesn't mean that other people haven't had success with it.

Guest's picture
Sandy Britton

Andrea, I think the hunger on Atkins is because it is simply TOO low carb. I found that if I cheated just a bit -- left half the bun on my burger, nibbled the edge of the tortilla on my taco salad -- I was always satisfied and still lost weight at a slow but steady pace.

Guest's picture
Chris Powell

I also take slight issue with the passage and comments being made about the Atkins Diet. The diet doesn't advocate "eliminating carbs completely," in fact, as an Atkins follower in the Ongoing Weight Loss stage, I can have as many as 50 carbs a day and still lose weight. I think the problem most people have is that they view the diet as a license to go ahead and eat a ton of meat, cheese and eggs all the time, when in fact, the "New Diet Revolution" and the more recent "New Atkins for the New You" put a lot of stress on eating plenty of vegetables (3/4 of your daily carb intake), as they are both rich in fiber and brain-fueling carbs. I would hope our author does a little more research next time before writing so condescendingly about a diet that has helped millions around the world achieve previously unrealized health goals. Also, one more thing: if you base a diet around not eating a bunch of sugar, bread and pasta, lose 50 pounds on that diet, then start eating a bunch of sugar, bread and pasta once you@ve reached your goal, OF COURSE YOU'RE GOING TO GAIN THE WEIGHT BACK. You keep it off by not going back to terrible habits!

Guest's picture

Wow, this is the first time I've ever heard about these noodles. Since my mom is Italian, I was always fed pasta and break like four to five times a week when I was little. I still love a good bowl of spaghetti, but I don't eat white pasta or bread anymore. This has been a huge help. Even though whole wheat pasta is a little more expensive (like .25 a box more) you eat less of it since it's more filling. I will have to try these noodles though!

Andrea Karim's picture

To be fair, these aren't EXACTLY like pasta. Especially Italian pasta. I'd say that the kelp noodles come pretty close to approximating the feeling of glass (rice) noodles, but none of these will ever match the true awesomeness of fresh Italian pasta. If you were raised on the real stuff by an Italian mom, this might seem like weak sauce (heh), but they are a godsend for people like me who really SHOULDN'T be consuming carbs.

Guest's picture
Sandy Britton

Low carbs only give you brain fog for a week or two, until the body adjusts and starts using the plentiful fuels in fats and proteins to power the brain. If your body is used to carbs that's what it will try to use, but once it switches over you will feel a definite POWER SURGE and far fewer highs/lows of energy or mood.

Guest's picture
Sandy Britton

Low carbs only give you brain fog for a week or two, until the body adjusts and starts using the plentiful fuels in fats and proteins to power the brain. If your body is used to carbs that's what it will try to use, but once it switches over you will feel a definite POWER SURGE and far fewer highs/lows of energy or mood.

Guest's picture
Guest

Mission makes nice low carb tortillas. For pasta, I love Dreamfields. Low in carbs and high in protein, delicious and worth a try as a side dish.

Guest's picture
Wanda

I love the Shirataki noodles for anything Asian. Just make sure you rinse them very well. They have a slight fishy odor to them. Hadn't heard of the tofu ones, but I did try the kelp once. It was like chewing on rubber bands. For anything Italian, I'll stick with Dreamfields.

Andrea Karim's picture

I hadn't noticed the fishy odor until I opened a pack this morning! That did take a bit of rinsing.

Both the kelp and the shirataki can be a bit crunchy, that's for sure. I found that the kelp eventually cooked down so that they were more pliable.

Guest's picture
Guest

Wait a minute. The author's comment about Atkins removing carbs completely shows how little she knows about Atkins. That is not the case, and is unfortunately a common misconception among those who haven't read up on the way of eating and rely only on hearsay and rumors. Please read more about Atkins before you make blanket statements.

The general idea: Cut down dramatically on carb intake (though still enough for health brain function, I might add), then slowly increase until you reach an equilibrium - no weight gained, no weight lost - at which point, you maintain that level. YIKES.

Andrea Karim's picture

Eh, whatever. 12-15 grams of carbs per day might as well be nothing.

Guest's picture
twblues

I agree, the author seems uninterested in being accurate about Atkins. I personally never had any success with Atkins, but it bugs me to see a blogger blithely put out bad information, and be nonchalant after being corrected.

The very low carb, first phase of the Atkins diet, called "Induction", only lasts 2 weeks! During this phase "Carbohydrate intake is limited to no more or less than 20 net grams per day (grams of carbohydrates minus grams of fiber, sugar alcohols, or glycerin), 12 to 15 net grams of which must come in the form of salad greens and other vegetables". After that, "The Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL) phase of Atkins consists of an increase in carbohydrate intake, but remaining at levels where weight loss occurs. The target daily carbohydrate intake increases each week by 5 net grams. A goal in OWL is to find the "Critical Carbohydrate Level for Losing" and to learn in a controlled manner how food groups in increasing glycemic levels and foods within that group affect your craving control. The OWL phase lasts until weight is within 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of the target weight." [These quotes come from the Wikipedia article on the Atkins Diet.]

Andrea Karim's picture

Yeah, this article isn't actually about the Atkins Diet at all. It's about low to no-carb noodles.

I'm well aware of how the diet works, having been on it. I'm aware of the two week induction. But the amount of carbohydrates prescribed during that two week period is not enough for the brain to function. If it were, your body wouldn't go into ketosis.

Guest's picture
Guest

Maybe your brain can't function on a low-carb diet, but I'm beginning to doubt it ever functions properly at all. Best of luck to you!

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks! Also, thanks for the continued commentary, which bumps the article up in the queue, thus earning me more money!

Guest's picture
Guest

It's ridiculous how many people have gone out of their way to comment on how inaccurate you are about the Atkins diet. Why is it that diets suddenly have as many blind zealots as religious radicals? People, it's a diet. Get over it.

Guest's picture
Guest

You ought to check out "Miracle Noodles" at http://www.miraclenoodle.com

Guest's picture
Guest

Check out Indian stores for "atta noodles". atta means flour made from whole wheat.

Guest's picture
Guest

Thanks so much for this! My partner was just told that she has to dramatically reduce her carbs as she is "almost" diabetic. We had been eating a lot of quinoa, but was told that even that was too much. I'm heading out to our specialty markets this weekend to see if I can find any of these noodles. Hoping Earthfare or Greenlife (organic stores) carry them...

Andrea Karim's picture

Hey, there. Yeah, quinoa actually has a LOT of carbs - it's largely considered to be gluten-free, and it's very high in protein, so it's good that way. But it has as many carbs as rice per serving, so it's not as helpful in controlling blood sugars as people might assume.

Good luck to you and your partner with the carb-reduction. It can be tough at first, but once you get used to it, it feels pretty good.

Guest's picture
Guest

I know I'm late on this discussion, but I'd like to weigh in.

First, I am going to find these noodles! I've heard of some of the alternatives to wheat/rice like kelp and mushroom, but haven't tried them. I've already tried Dreamfields, and they are good. I was concerned that they might be hard to digest, because carbs that can't be used (read fiber and cellulose) can cause digestive challenges. Over all, neither my husband nor I were bothered by consuming them. I stressed to him that portion control was extremely important to our little experiment. Thanks for publishing your reviews:)

Next, I'd like to weigh in on the ketosis/Adkins issue. Ketosis and diabetic ketoacedosis (DKA) are two very different things, though they sound similar. Let's have a mini-biochemistry lesson, and yes, I am a professional chemist. Your body has to complementary hormones: Insulin and glucagon. Insulin works to make your cells UPTAKE glucose from your bloodstream. Glucagon is the antagonist hormone, and causes the RELEASE of stored glucose from your cells (first your liver, then the conversion of fats to sugars from your fat cells). DKA is a set of symptoms that usually occurs in type 2 diabetics (but type 1 can be affected also), but is severe enough to become toxic to the individual and results in damage to the kidneys, liver, blood vessels etc, and causes the body to become severely dehydrated in attempt to balance the chemistry that is occuring. Read the WebMD link for more detailed information, or the Mayo Website: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/118361-overview http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/diabetic-ketoacidosis/DS00674/DSECTION=....

Throughout history, people have had times of plenty and hunger, and they were as cyclic and predictable as the season changes. In times of plenty, people would store more fat, which would carry them through the hungry times (eg. winter). They would naturally go into ketosis and burn their reserves. The were also working harder to live.

In contrast, we don't have to work that hard to live, and we are constantly in a time of plenty. Ketosis based diets are not for everyone, and Atkins didn't get it all right. The principles of ketosis are very solid, and apply to all weight loss: burn more, consume less.

Many people feel great after the initial part of the diet. I have personally put myself into ketosis, and MY experience was this: as I went into ketosis (about 2-3 days) I felt horrible. I knew my body would be screaming as my glycogen stores were used up from my liver. As soon as I was in ketosis, I felt pretty good. I increased my water intake to help my kidneys filter my blood. I also kept my intake to about 800-1000 fat and protein based calories. So, portion control is still important (this is one point I disagree with Adkins on). Because the volume of food is different, sugar-free fiber supplements are a necessity as your body adjusts, and I took one.

I did this to support my husband, who needed to drop some weight for a back surgery. He is not really heavy, but being lighter would help his recovery, and he was borderline diabetic. Genetics are not on his side for weight and diabetes, and he must consider every bite he consumes. I am active/athletic build, and weight is not an issue in my family, but insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes & PCOS) is. I am not overweight, and have never been, but eat a reduced carb diet, due to genetics, not to any current disease.

Andrea Karim's picture

Thank you very much for the thoughtful and informative comment. I've actually moved onto a lower carbohydrate diet, although I do find it difficult, it's not nearly as hard as it was originally. I'm not experiencing any ketosis, but I am experiencing a decent amount of weight loss, so that's good!

Guest's picture
Guest

Thanks so much for your articles about low carb and diabetes and frugality. Very helpful for a pre-diabetes person like me looking to reduce carbs.