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Originally published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 2:13 PM

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Noodle promises no carbs or calories

What if you could eat pasta marinara and only count the tomato sauce?

Chicago Tribune

What if you could eat pasta marinara and only count the tomato sauce? Or gobble a dish of mac and cheese and only worry about cheese calories?

A new brand of noodle, made with soluble fiber from a Japanese yam, promises to deliver exactly that using a no-calorie, no-carbohydrate, no-gluten, no-fat noodle called the NoOodle.

While it may sound like some sort of space-age franken-food, the shirataki yam (also called konyaku) noodle has been eaten by Asians for centuries. Still, it has taken America's growing concerns about gluten, carbohydrates, calories and diabetes to prompt a U.S. manufacturer to produce it here in a new line of heat-and-eat meals. Flavors include marinara and primavera, with chicken teriyaki and macaroni and cheese rolling out soon.

Composed mostly of water and glucomannan fiber from the yam, these noodles have been sold by Japanese companies for years to put in sukiyaki and hot pot. But American-produced Miracle Noodles and NoOodles, made from Asian-grown yams, are relatively new and aimed squarely at the Western market.

This month the NoOodle entrees have gone out to retailers across the country, along with the plain noodles that are making their way onto restaurant menus.

NoOodles creator Terri Rogers said she first heard about the noodles through a customer at her suburban Chicago restaurant, Lincolnshire Gourmet. She tried a packet and was so impressed that she started serving various preparations within months.

"I originally put them on the menu for my gluten-free customers," said Rogers who introduced them in May. "But then I sold about 300 in three days, mostly to women who wanted noodles with no calories or carbs."

Rogers' decision to manufacture and market them here as packaged meals, she says, brought together her passion for cooking and her experience in the wholesale grocery market.

Her prepared meals run from 30 calories for pasta primavera to 100 calories for a dish of pearl-like macaroni and cheese. But, Rogers says, "We're all about health, so we don't really see it specifically as a diet product."

Jonathan Carp, owner of California-based Miracle Noodle USA, says that he gets lots of mail from grateful "diabetics who have finally gotten their sugar under control with the noodle," but adds, "We really cater to the weight-loss market."

"Basically it's a filler that will expand in your stomach," says Carp, who plans to introduce packaged noodle entrees this fall. "So when you eat a dish that is mostly noodles they will make you feel like you've had a substantial meal. Satiety is a reflection of stress receptors in the stomach that respond to volume in the stomach."

Still, medical professionals remain somewhat skeptical. Although there have been some studies linking glucomannan to nominal weight loss, studies of the actual noodle are few and far between."The major benefit is that they take up space in your stomach," says Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. "But whether or not they are useful for weight loss remains to be proven. The studies are still mixed."

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Hannah El-Amin, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says: "I would warn against building one's diet around the noodles because they provide minimal nutrition. ... While these are fine as an occasional addition to an otherwise well-balanced diet, I would warn against considering them a dietary staple."

Kantha Shelke, a food scientist and consultant for the NoOodle, doesn't rule out daily consumption but agrees that the noodle should be eaten as part of a well-rounded diet.

"If you ate nothing but noodle every day, it would not be good," she said. "But if you ate it with a wide variety of other things, it would be helpful. If someone was watching caloric intake, fiber, or cholesterol and sugar, you could actually sneak 2 to 4 ounces into many meals."

While El-Amin acknowledges that the noodles "contain a good amount of fiber, which may help slow digestion and make you feel fuller as a result," she notes that "the benefits of fiber such as lowering cholesterol, lowering blood sugar and providing a sense of fullness are not unique to these noodles. This is also the case with other high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

One final note: Although the noodles are essentially flavorless, they are not odorless right out of the package. Consumers have described their smell as earthy or squidlike, but say that the odor disappears under running water. Their calamari-like texture also becomes more al dente when dry-fried in a pan.

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