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.
Incidentally, 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