Are Soba Noodles Healthier Than Spaghetti?

One thing those following a healthy plant-based diet must know is the importance of reading labels carefully. Not only because food manufacturers sneak animal ingredients into the most surprising of places, but because labels often mislead you to believe unhealthy food is nutritious.

Take “soba” noodles for example. Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat, and synonymous with the popular noodle dish. The main reason for eating buckwheat–besides its fragrant aroma–is its exceptional nutrition (high protein, vitamins and minerals) and health benefits (protecting cardiovascular system and controlling blood sugar).

However, just like “whole-wheat” bread–which may contain as little as 5% whole-wheat flour–soba noodles typically contain less than half soba flour (some have practically none), instead using unhealthy white  flour made from wheat.

Even in my neighborhood grocery in Tokyo–where there are over 15 kinds of soba noodles (both dry and fresh)–not a single one is 100% buckwheat. Only a couple even listed soba as the main ingredient, and of the two that did, one contained egg-whites of all things! Consequently, most so-called soba is little better than plain-old white pasta, and perhaps worse.

Why is this? Most people want to believe they’re eating foods that promote health, but have grown accustomed to processed products that are not whole-grains. For example, wheat-based noodles contain gluten that give them a strong body and chewy consistency people prefer, while 100 percent (jyu-wari) soba noodles are fragile and break apart easily when cooked. In addition, food producers realize they can’t make as much profit from high quality natural products, and are more than willing to give customers what they want: taste over health.

Nonetheless, if you want to take advantage of soba’s health benefits, you should choose those noodles made of at least 80 percent soba flour, indicated by the term hachi-wari in Japanese. The more your diet consists of natural, whole foods, the better, and remember to choose organically produced foods whenever possible.

nomicon_pageIncidentally, despite its name, “buckwheat” is not a variety of wheat but a fruit seed related to  rhubarb, and is gluten-free (unless cross-contaminated with wheat–so check the label if you have a gluten sensitivity).  I often use soba flour in pancakes, such as the galettes in Veganomicon, and in baking cakes and cookies, too. Recipes to follow!

Besides the Tomato Nabe Soup with Soba Noodles pictured above, one of my favorite recipes for soba noodles is Chinese-Style Summer Soba. Check out Homemade healthy soba noodles for more recipes and to learn how to make your own soba from soba flour. Of course, vegans are advised to omit the bonito flakes commonly used as a base of Japanese soup broth and dipping sauces.

I would really appreciate your feedback and suggestions on your favorite ways to prepare and enjoy soba!

This post is also available in: Japanese

19 thoughts on “Are Soba Noodles Healthier Than Spaghetti?

  1. Jim Dunlop

    I tell you, Will. Sometimes I think the whole country conspires against those who want to eat healthy.

    An interesting coincidence that you’ve mentioned noodles and also using a Vegan broth… Yesterday I made a cool discovery though — I found a really oishii-looking recipe for Vegan dashi. Most other Vegan dashi recipes I’ve found to date are simply just kombu and water, with the bonito flakes omitted. But this recipe adds a few more flavors to make it more complex. I likeee! Here’s a link to the recipe:

    http://vegweb.com/index.php?topic=12401.0

  2. william Post author

    That vegan dashi recipe does look better than my normal one (from dried shiitake or kombu). I’ll give it a try next time! Made tomato nabe with sauce of grated daikon, shoyu, fresh yuzu rind/juice and sesame seeds.
    Thanks

  3. trijbits

    Interesting! I never really paid attention before, but only an hour after reading this post, I happened to be looking around Kaldi Coffee Farm (lots of great import/domestic goodies–are you familiar with this chain?), and a stack of soba noodles caught my eye. Turns out they are 100% soba flour and water–that’s all. I bought a couple of packs and will try them out, but to be honest, I’m not expecting them to be as yummy as the standard soba.

    Thanks for all the interesting info.

  4. william Post author

    I haven’t heard of Kaldi, but am pleased their noodles are 100% buckwheat. Usually, if soba noodles are not labeled 100% (or 80%) buckwheat, they are mostly wheat. Hope you will find a way enjoy their unique flavor!

  5. trijbits

    Follow up: Actually they turned out to be delicious! I made a simple “kakesoba” (noodles in hot soup), and the texture especially was excellent. These will be our “toshikoshi soba” this year!

  6. Jim Dunlop

    Cool! Thanks for the tip on Kaldi. There are two shops near me — I’ll take a closer look the next time I’m there!

  7. william Post author

    In response to reader queries regarding udon, and a similar flat Japanese noodle called Houtou (ほうとう) from Yamanashi, Japan: With rare exception, both of these noodles are made from processed flour, and nutritionally equivalent to normal wheat pasta. Warabemura (Gifu, Japan) does have both whole-wheat udon and somen (thinner noodles typically eaten in the summer). http://warabemura.net/html/page3.html

  8. Lily

    Thanks for this post – I’ve always loved eating soba noodles at Japanese restaurants, and I have been considering making them for myself at home. I will be sure to look for hachi-wari soba : )

  9. william Post author

    Appreciate your comments. The ones with higher buckwheat content taste the best, so enjoy them whenever you can!

  10. Kaethe

    Thank you for educating us about soba. I really appreciated the information. We need to learn so much in order to eat healthy. Lately I’ve been cooking buckwheat groats; they only take 15 minutes, can be used as hot breakfast cereal or a brown rice replacement. And they are so yummmy!

  11. Raquel

    Hello there, thank you for your article. I’m in Singapore and it’s so difficult to look for soba that uses buckwheat as their main ingredient! Happened to find one but it’s called Sarashina Hachi-wari Soba.. I understand that Sarashina is using refined buckwheat, would that actually strip away the goodness of buckwheat? Thanks!

  12. william Post author

    Thank you for reading, Raquel. “Hachi-wari” means 80%, which is among the most pure soba noodles you can find. All flour is refined, but this is close enough to whole grain that you will be obtaining the beneficial nutrients of soba. Enjoy! Please feel free to shoot me any other questions you have. -William

  13. Sheila

    I have just visited six different sites reading about soba noodles. Not one mentioned checking for the percentage of buckwheat in the product. I checked three packages I have purchased, and one contained 30% buckwheat, one contained wheat flour and malted barley flour and egg white, and the other one listed wheat flour as the main ingredient. Thanks so much for pointing out the importance of checking the ingredient labels as opposed to the package which reads “authentic Japanese buckwheat noodles”.

  14. william Post author

    Hi, Sheila. Thank you for reading and seeking the highest quality whole foods. I’m still amazed at how companies and restaurants get away with calling them soba, when the noodles contain practically none of the nutrients (and don’t taste like soba, either).

  15. David

    Was so disappointed as I thought soba noodle shop here in Japan made them at least with 70-80% buckweed. Today I asked a popular soba noodles shop where I am in right now and he told me that only 40% buckweed flower was used the rest was normal wheat flower. I never eat pasta myself and either any member of my family. We didnt eat normal pasta for years. What a disappointment. From now on will never eat soba noodles in an other shop and will look only on buying them from reputable grocery shops and cook them at my place. Everywhere is about how much money they can make… Thank you so much for this site as I was been blinded for years!

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  17. Charlotte Locey

    I am not as savvy as the respondents here. Just learned about buckwheat soba noodles after learning I must, after 60+ years, avoid wheat. On Amazon, I found King Soba noodles which are 100% organic buckwheat. To my surprise, they are quite tasty.

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