May 11, 2015
It's no secret that most pasta slowly destroys your gut, your brain and your body.
I dive deep into the nitty-gritty of why pasta is such bad news in this podcast interview with Dr. William Davis, who also wrote a very good book that addresses this topic in detail (“Wheat Belly“), which along with David Perlmutter's “Grain Brain” is a must-read if you're still struggling to control your cravings when you saunter past an Italian restaurant or find yourself dreaming of spaghetti with marinara, but need just a bit more biological convincing.
But perhaps you’ve already “biohacked your pasta” and switched to zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash, two ever-popular non-grain alternatives to modern, commercial wheat and gluten-laden pasta, and you're simply looking for a new way to experience pastas and stir-fries.
There is indeed another way that ancient, traditional societies biohacked their noodles – or at least, figured out a way to have tasty soups and noodle dishes without relying upon grains, soy or other allergenic triggers. For example, in Japan (one of my favorite countries, and a place I’ve visited many times to race triathlons) the indigenous population for centuries have used noodles made of shirataki and kanten. You're about to discover exactly what these these noodle alternative are, and how you can use them to biohack your pasta.
The first style of noodles in Japan is known as shirataki, and for centuries, Japanese monks have subsisted on these ultra low-calorie, low-carb noodles that are made out of vegetable fiber from a plant that’s very similar to a wild yam. The second style of noodles is a particular favorite of mine and one that I've been putting on my lunchtime salads every day. It's called kanten, and is derived from a type of seaweed vegetable known as tengusa.
You're probably familiar with the Okinawa region of Japan, made famous for (besides a U.S. Marines base) its extraordinarily high number of centenarians, people who live healthy, robust lives to 100 and beyond. Areas such as this are commonly called “blue zones”, and there's actually a new book that is on my reading list called “Blue Zone Solutions” that delves into this topic.
Interestingly, researchers who have studied these Japanese centenarians believe that the health of these elderly Okinawan people partially stems from their inclusion of sea vegetables such as kanten in their diet. But when it comes to kanten noodles, you actually wouldn’t believe the complex process that it takes to transform agar-agar, the gelatin-like substance of the tengusa seaweed into a functional noodle that takes only 30 seconds of stirring in hot water to prepare for soups, stir-fries and pastas.
In order to get the texture of noodles from the agar, the seaweed needs to be put on the side of the mountain in the winter, where it freezes during the night and thaws during the day in the sunshine. Through careful maintenance by an artisan who constantly monitors meteorological conditions, especially temperature, a kanten product can be created that actually has noodle-like consistency (as opposed to being nasty, seaweed mush). This entire, painstaking process takes 3-4 weeks for just one batch, but kanten has been prepared in this traditional way for several generations.
Below is a photograph of my friend Dr. Jonathan Carp, an MD who has visited Japan dozens of times to study the Okinawans and their special pasta-producing techniques. He is actually standing with one of these amazing artisans who lives at high altitudes in the mountains of Japan and works as part of a small, family-run kanten noodle production facility.
Jonathan recently sent me a few sample packs of these kanten noodles (he calls them “Miracle Noodles”) straight from his source in Japan, along with links to several medical studies that have proven agar-agar’s value as a health food. For example, one study published in Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism concluded that the agar diet resulted in marked weight loss due to the maintenance of reduced calorie intake and to an improvement in metabolic parameters. This is probably because the stuff has zero calories. Yes, zero.
In another study, cholesterol levels, insulin resistance and fasting blood glucose levels were significantly improved with regular consumption of agar (the terms ‘agar-agar’, ‘kanten,’ and ‘agar’ are synonymous). The 6 grams of fiber in one serving of kanten helps with meal satiety, and as agar-agar fills your gastrointestinal tract, it actually makes you stop eating earlier than usual. I've found that both my lunchtime salads as well as any stir fries or pastas I've made with the kanten noodles that Jonathan sent me (worry not, recipes are coming below!) have been incredibly filling, and kept me from craving carbohydrates or foods like red wine or dark chocolate after I've finished eating.
Finally in Japan, agar is also used as a gelatin substitute to help ease upset stomachs, in the same way that we would use bone broth here in the United States. To get these same stomach-soothing benefits, I've actually been not only eating the kanten noodles, but also drinking the water that I use to do the quick 30 second soak of the noodles.
OK, at this point, you're probably ready to try these yourself in some recipes, and although kanten noodles can be used a substitute for any spaghetti or noodle based dish, I'm going to dive into two of my favorite recipes for you.
As you read these two recipes – one more complex, and one a bit easier – please remember that you should not add boiling water to the kanten noodles. They will become a gooey mess if you do. Instead, just add the kanten noodles to warm/hot water (about the temperature of tea that you could sip) and stir for 30 seconds until noodles are soft. You should also know that my twin 7 year old boys have gone absolutely nuts over the noodles, not only because they're easy for the kids to help prepare, but also because they're fun to twirl around a fork or eat with chopsticks.
If you click here to go the Miracle Noodle website, and choose kanten noodles, you'll automatically get a 15% discount. You can also experiment with the shirataki noodles from that same website, but I have yet to use those myself, so can't really comment on the taste or texture of the shirataki…yet.
Miracle Noodle Crock Pot Chicken Stew
This is a more complex recipe, but is perfect for “batching” meals, entertaining a large group, or cooking for a family.
- 2 tbsp avocado oil
- 8 boneless chicken thighs
- 2 cups cauliflower, chopped, steamed, and drained
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 yellow onion sliced
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
- 2 cups baby kale, chopped
- 1 4 oz. can diced green chilies
- 2 bags kanten pasta
- Place sliced onions, garlic, and chicken broth into a crock pot. Set it to low or to desired cook time.
- Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet until shimmery. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Add chicken thighs to skillet in batches of 4 and brown on both sides. (Can skip this step if short on time).
- Place chicken thighs in crock pot.
- Add remaining oil into skillet. Quickly saute and brown the cauliflower. Add to crock pot with skillet bits and the oil. Add cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Stir gently to coat chicken and vegetables.
- Allow to simmer for a few hours.
- An hour before serving, add cilantro, spinach, kale, and green chilies to crock pot. Stir gently.
- 10 minutes before serving, add kanten pasta. Stir.
Big-Ass Kanten Noodle Salad (the easier recipe)
Every day for lunch I have what I call a “big-ass salad”. The ingredients often vary, but I'll include one of my favorite examples below. Prior to discovering the kanten noodles, I used to simply wrap my salad in seaweed nori wraps and eat my salad like a burrito, but now I put noodles on top of my salad, and eat my salad through the noodles, so it's a bit like eating a fresh vegetable stir-fry. This sounds weird, but it actually turns out quite well for helping my lunchtime salads to leave me incredibly full, for hours and hours.
The salad tends to vary quite a bit from day to day, but here's the specs on one that I recently posted to my Instagram account.
- Purple Heirloom Carrot
- Garlic Stuffed Olive
- Hemp Seeds
- Pecorino Cheese
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Tahini Sesame Paste
- Homemade Sourdough Croutons
- Sea Salt
- Black Pepper
Easy. Pile everything into a bowl, top with the kanten noodles (see noodle prep instructions in other recipe above), top off noodles with a little extra oil, salt and pepper if you'd like, then munch away – and never crave spaghetti or pasta again.
So what do you think? Do you plan on trying kanten pasta yourself? Do you have your own recipes to add? Leave your comments below, and either myself or Dr. Jonathan Carp will reply. Finally if you click here to go the Miracle Noodle website, choose kanten noodles, and enter coupon code ben15, you'll automatically get a 15% discount.