Carb Solution: Spiralized Veggie “Noodles”
By Dennis Linden
Over half of the U.S. adult population, some 154 million, qualify as being overweight or obese. Another 29 million of us have Diabetes, many as a direct result of being overweight. Then there are the 23.9 million overweight children who are dutifully following the example of their XXL adult role models. Diabetes and these extra pounds cost this country billions annually in both medical and economic resources; not to mention the affect these weight-related maladies have on a person’s overall mental well-being and happiness. However, both diabetes and being overweight are very manageable, even preventable, with a few lifestyle tweaks. By maintaining a sensible diet in conjunction with some consistent exercise, no matter how minimal, we can all be in total control of our own weight. One easy way to start taking that control is to make decisions about the foods we eat based on the glycemic index [GI] and glycemic load [GL].
Simply put, our bodies convert all foods into sugar calories that provide energy to the body via the blood stream. The Glycemic Index assigns a score of 1 to 100 to all foods based how speedy the body converts that food into sugar. Foods that break down slowly enable the body to assimilate theses calories of energy more efficiently without overwhelming the body with more sugar than it can process. While this is especially important for diabetics who process sugars much slower than others, everyone can benefit from eating foods that have low glycemic scores since they also reduce appetite and encourage the metabolism to burn body fat. Conversely, a diet of foods high on the glycemic charts have been proven to actually increase appetite and impede effective fat oxidation.
A Quickie Glycemic Primer:
The latest kitchen toy to take the foodie world by culinary storm is the spiralizer. While there are a plethora of designs and price levels to choose from in the marketplace, they all claim to effortlessly transform almost any firm, solid vegetable (no hollow, seedy, squishy, juicy fruits or veggies need apply) into long strands of pasta-like noodles that are low in carbs and virtually calorie free. Intrigued and always on the lookout for the glycemic holy grail – a low carb pasta taste-alike that fools the palate – I purchased a medium-priced spiralizer that seemed to garnish the most positive consumer reviews based on some Internet research about these gadgets.
- The glycemic index of a food compares its effect on blood sugar level to that of pure glucose, which has a score of 100. White breads, which are made of processed white flour, are at the top of this scale, scoring a “perfect” 100 on the glycemic index. For perspective, a score of 55 or below denotes a low-glycemic-index food; 70 or above is considered very high. Serving size is not a consideration in arriving at a food’s Glycemic Index number.
- The glycemic load, on the other hand, focuses on how much digestible carbohydrates (sugars) a food contains in a typical single serving, which is defined as approximately 3.5 ounces. For glycemic load, a score of 20 or more is high, while 10 or less is low.
In the course of that same ‘net browsing, I also noticed that the demo veggie most used to depict the spiralizers in action, regardless of design, was a zucchini. So the original plan for this month’s blog was to present the preparation of a spiralized mock pasta dish using this common squash. At least, that was the plan until I tasted it on a plate. The reader can view the specific critiques with regards zucchini noodles in the section below; suffice it to say that I was not impressed.
Behind every Plan “A” there should be a Plan “B”. I got to thinking that there must be other vegetables that would make for a closer facsimile to the pasta experience. Conveniently, my spiralizer manual provided a long list of fresh produce suggestions that would spiralize easily. [Insert half-sized pic #2 into wrap-around text] I picked five of them to turn into noodles and prepared each in the same way, using only the most basic components of Italian cuisine: olive oil, a clove of peeled garlic, a generous application of Melissa’s My Grinder Italian Seasoning and topped each serving with some fresh-grated Parmesan cheese. The following is a short summary of my findings, ranked in order of how best each not only looked the part, but also fooled the palate with texture and a noodle-like retention of the supporting flavors…
#6 ZUCCHINI NOODLES: The squash was peeled, spiralized and simply sautéed with the other ingredients for about 4 minutes. Actually, I peeled this squash for both this feature’s picture as well as the cooking test because I was trying to replicate the look of pasta noodles. However, the taste test changed my mind. Leave the skin on when spiralizing this squash as it will add an attractive green striping to a dish that will never pass for mama’s pasta anyway! The zucchini did pair deliciously with the other Italian flavor components, as expected; however the “noodles” never lost their zucchini-ness. It was simply a plate of zucchini in another form. On the positive side, there is nothing wrong with changing up the usual form. Use spiralized zucchini to upgrade the presentation of this rather common side dish vegetable!
#5 SWEET POTATO NOODLES: So how can a baked sweet potato, with GI score of 94 and GL of 42, be a candidate for a low-carb noodle? Simple – boil instead of bake. Though I have railed against boiling the nutrients out of most veggies in past features, in this case a boiled sweet potato has a decreased GI score of 46 and GL of only 11! These dramatic differences are because the starches in sweet potatoes gelatinize during boiling. Foods that turn viscous, or jelly-like, in the digestive tract have a lower GI because the gelatinous substance slows the release of the sugars in the food. So sweet potatoes do make the cut glycemicly, however I found that the cooked noodles – first par-boiled then sautéed in the usual manner for 5-7 minutes, tasted more like Italian-style hash browns than a pasta. While the noodle certainly looked the part, apparently once a potato always a potato! All in all not very noodle-like, though a great low-carb sub for the very high carb potato that will definitely satisfy those hash browns cravings! Just remember to boil the carbs away first.
#4 RUTABAGA NOODLES: Rutabagas are one of those vegetables that underscore the need to make food choices based on both the GI and the GL scores when counting carbs. At first glance, this root’s high GI score of 79 disqualifies this root crop from the low-carb menu; however, rutabagas are surprisingly low in net carbohydrates, with the bulk of the root being water, dietary fiber and beneficial nutrients. Thus the impact on the body in terms of a sugar (aka the glycemic load) is a very low 7. I sautéed the raw noodles in olive oil in a covered pan at medium low heat for about 10 minutes—adding maybe an ounce of broth in the last two minutes that cooked away but kept the noodles plump and moist. While the flavor had a slightly pleasant “bite” and the texture was definitely veggie-based as opposed to flour-based, there certainly was more overall pasta-like qualities to this one over some of the others. I think more supporting ingredients, like a good tomato sauce, would help the Italian illusion.
#3 DAIKON NOODLES: I had my doubts about Daikon from the get-go. It just seemed such a stretch from radish to pasta -- especially seeing the delicate, almost translucent, noodles coming out of my spiralizer. Looked like a cross between a Chinese glass noodle and Italian angel hair pasta! However, since I spiralized all the veggies at the same time but spread the prep of each over a few days, the spiralized Daikon developed a more opaque color while chilling in the ‘frig waiting for their turn in the sauté pan. Peeled and sautéed for five minutes, I found the texture could almost pass for a noodle. There was a bit of veggie crunch, still I surprised even myself by giving it a B grade as a pasta impersonator. Not bad for a radish!
#2 BUTTERNUT SQUASH: Use a squash with the straightest and longest neck you can find. Cut the bulbous end off and save for another dish; peel the neck and spiralize. After a little trial and error I found the best way to prepare these rather sturdy noodles was to first toss them in a little melted butter, bake for about ten minutes @ 375° and then sauté in olive oil and the seasonings for 5-7 more minutes. Except for the color, butternut squash came in a close second to the parsnips in replicating pasta. In fact, I would wager that in a blind-folded comparison the butternut would win the day in coming closest to replicating texture and flavor of a real pasta noodle. A plateful of these hearty noodles was just as satisfyingly filling as the equivalent serving in real pasta, without the calories or carbs! Like parsnips, the squash also has a medium GI score of 51 but little sugar, so a negligible GL of only 3!
#1 PARSNIPS NOODLES: This turned out to be one of most noodle-like of all the veggies tested. Just peel, cut ends flat, spiralize and then sauté for 5-7 minutes. The noodles held an al dente texture, shape and appearance throughout the cooking process. Though parsnips tend to sweeten when cooked, the mix of seasonings and fresh garlic countered-balance the root’s natural sweetness perfectly, which helped to support the illusion of pasta. Like the rest, there was a hint of vegetable crunch, but it still came the closest to noodle-ness in my opinion. BTW, parsnips are another one of those “read the entire glycemic label” vegetables. That is, while the root has a medium GI score of 51, there is so little net sugar in a parsnip that its GL rate is only 4 -- having virtually no impact on blood sugar at all.
My takeaway from this stovetop comparative study is that a spiralizer is a great way to present some fresh vegetable side dishes in a new and creative way on the plate. However, a shaved vegetable by any other name is still just a shaved veggie. If your pasta noodle tastes like zucchini and walks like zucchini, it will always be a zucchini…or a parsnip…or a rutabaga! So, in the future, I will use my new spiralizer to shape a side dish or garnish vegetable into an interesting presentation, not as a pasta maker. Besides, there are plenty of low carb pasta alternatives on today’s grocery shelves that require just a quick boil, like mung bean, edamame and Shirataki noodles. The ‘net is also filled with many glycemic-friendly homemade pasta recipes that use either low carb flours or no flour at all that I have yet to try in search of that aforementioned grail of noodles. Promise to let readers know if I find it!