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Image: Wil Dubois of DiabetesMine

There’s a new fad sweeping the diabetes universe: veggie noodles, a pasta substitute said to be low carb, low calorie, gluten-free, and — allegedly— tasty. If true, it would be the D-quivalent of ambrosia from Mount Olympus for people with diabetes.

To evaluate this new craze, we conducted an experiment on four varieties of these noodles in our own test kitchen, using a carefully designed culinary study design that would make Consumer Reports scientists proud (we hope). More on that in a moment. But first, a bit about what veggie noodles are, and just as importantly, what they’re not.

Sit down. These new pasta replacements aren’t really noodles at all, at least not in the traditional sense. They’re not dried pasta made with veggie flour instead of wheat flour. So what are they?

Well, absurd as it sounds, they’re simply vegetables cut into shapes reminiscent of pasta, frozen, and marketed as functional and healthy pasta replacements. As such, they’re naturally low cal and low carb — especially compared to actual pasta. And, of course, they’re gluten-free.

One of the big movers and shakers behind this new product craze is the food giant B&G Foods, through their Green Giant brand. It calls its line of veggie noodles Swap-Ins.

We decided to focus on pasta swaps called Veggie Spirals for this study, but Green Giant is also marketing frozen veggies crafted into a wide range of replacements, including tater-free veggie tots, mashed cauliflower to replace mashed potatoes, and assorted riced veggies to stand-in for rice, veggie hash browns, veggie breadsticks, and even veggie pizza crust!

Clever marketing? Or a huge benefit for people with diabetes and others who need to watch their calories, carbs, and gluten, or just want to up their veggie game? We rolled up our sleeves and went into the kitchen to find out.

I selected the Green Giant offerings for our experiment, partly because the brand is one of the driving forces behind the craze, partly because the whole line is carried at my local grocery store, and partly because I figured: Who could possibly know frozen veggies better than the big green man? After all, the company has been in the veggie biz for 117 years.

On the testbed were: Zucchini Veggie Spirals, Spaghetti Squash Veggie Spirals, Carrot Veggie Spirals, and Beets Veggie Spirals.

To truly understand the blood sugar impact of each type of noodle, and to rule out confounding factors, the same easy-prep meal was used to test each kind of veggie noodle. Each meal contained:

  • 1 serving of Tyson Grilled & Ready Fully Cooked Chicken Breast Strips
  • 1 serving of Veggie Spirals
  • 1/4 cup Bertolli Organic Creamy Alfredo Sauce

I chose grilled chicken for the protein portion of the meal because it’s low carb, low cal, and easy to throw in the microwave to heat up. Plus, chicken goes with Alfredo sauce, in my mind. I chose Alfredo sauce because its mild and wouldn’t overwhelm the baseline flavor of the veggie noodles.

There were no drinks accompanying the meals, as I don’t typically consume any liquids with my dinner other than water.

For each of the four experiments, I prepared the veggie noodles following the directions on the package and measured out a serving size according to the label. Likewise, the sauce and protein servings were carefully measured, and my insulin bolus was calculated from the carb counts on the labels of the chicken, sauce, and Veggie Spirals.

The ground rules for the experiment called for going into the meal with steady, in-range blood sugar and then recording CGM sensor glucose readings 1 hour post-meal and 3 hours post-meal. No other food or carbs were consumed in the 3 hours following the meal.

How did it all work out? The test report for each noodle follows:

The zucchini spirals are medium diameter arcs, seemingly cut around the narrow part of the vegetable, not along its length. To be honest, I had high hopes for this particular product, which is why I chose to try it first.

Here’s the skinny on this flavor of Veggie Spirals:

Nutritional information:

  • Serving size: 1/2 cup
  • Calories: 15
  • Carbs: 2

Cooking and preparation: The package gives cooking directions for both stovetop, which is recommended, and microwave, which is what I choose for a variety of reasons — including the fact that I don’t own the required pan with a lid. The cooking time was longer than I expected at 6 minutes. The product cooks right in the bag it comes in, and after cooking, the front peels off to open it. The label says there are four servings in the package, but I found it contained only two servings when done. The package also warned me that I might need to drain off some water, and that’s a serious understatement. The spirals were adrift in their own private swimming pool.

Taste: I found the flavor surprisingly bad, a generic “yucky” veggie taste that reminded me of the low-grade canned vegetables from the elementary school cafeteria of my youth. This distasteful flavor was strong enough to overwhelm the sauce’s otherwise pleasing flavor, as was the smell. I also found that the standard sauce serving size swamped the serving size of zucchini spirals, leaving me eating a drenched glutinous mass of (literally) stinking veggies.

Consistency: I’m not sure how a product can be both crunchy and soggy at the same time, but somehow Green Giant has mastered this unlikely combination in this product. It was an unpleasant feeling in the mouth, and not at all pasta-like. Let’s face it: Pasta can be soggy if overcooked and crunchy if undercooked, but never both at the same time. WTF?

Blood sugar report:

  • Baseline: 117
  • At 1 hour: 117
  • At 3 hours: 97

Critic’s rating: 1 star. The zucchini spirals definitely delivered on keeping blood sugar in check. But as noted, I could barely choke down this meal. I threw the leftovers away.

Spaghetti squash naturally flakes into wonderful strands, and it’s been used as a pasta substitute since at least the Atkins craze. I’m a huge fan of fresh spaghetti squash, although I usually eat it with salt and butter rather than with sauce. I was optimistic the Green Giant version would be good, as I know from experience that you can cook fresh spaghetti squash in the microwave and freeze the leftovers to good effect.

Here’s the skinny on this flavor of Veggie Spirals:

Nutritional information:

  • Serving size: 1/2 cup
  • Calories: 25
  • Carbs: 4 net (5 minus 1 for fiber)

Cooking and preparation: Microwave cooking time was 7 minutes, and this product also cooks in the package it’s sold in. But this package didn’t have the peel-off front and needed to be cut open with scissors. It, too, had a significant volume of water to pour off, and again, the number of servings was shy of the package’s stated contents once cooked.

Taste: Like all spaghetti squash, it had a mild, pleasant flavor that actually got overwhelmed by the Alfredo sauce. The squash would have been better straight up, or with butter. But in that case, it would really be just a veggie side dish rather than a pasta replacement.

Consistency: The spaghetti squash had a pleasant crunch that was enjoyable, but hardly pasta-like. And speaking of pasta, Green Giant greatly reduced the potential pasta experience by cutting the strands quite short, so they couldn’t be twirled like proper spaghetti.

Blood sugar report:

  • Baseline: 118
  • At 1 hour: 113
  • At 3 hours: 90

Critic’s rating: 2 stars. Somehow this meal actually lowered my blood sugar, which is unheard of! Taste-wise, it was a more pleasant experience than the first round, but it hardly rocked the house. Still, this time I kept the excess portions as a veggie side for a future meal.

Don’t get me wrong, I love carrots. At least fresh, on a salad, where they belong. But I confess to not being a fan of cooked carrots, and I couldn’t imagine them as an effective pasta substitute. And with the largest serving size of the lot, I was thinking: a cup of cooked carrots? Yuck!

On the bright side, unlike our two previous products, the carrots are cut thick, and somewhat long, not unlike homemade spaghetti from a hole-in-the-wall family Italian restaurant.

Here’s the skinny on this flavor of Veggie Spirals:

Nutritional information:

  • Serving size: 1 cup
  • Calories: 30
  • Carbs: 4 net (7 minus 3 for fiber)

Cooking and preparation: Microwave cooking time was 7 minutes, again cooked in the package it’s sold in. Like our first product, this one has the peel-back lid, and on opening, it looked more appetizing than the other two. Again, it didn’t contain the number of servings the package says it does, at 3 cups, not 4. This time, there was no water to drain off.

Taste: Mild but not bland. The carrots went surprisingly well with the Alfredo sauce.

Consistency: Soft and pasta-like.

Blood sugar report:

  • Baseline: 119
  • At 1 hour: 130
  • At 3 hours: 99

Critic’s rating: 4 stars. Again, an amazing blood sugar result post-meal. And much to my pleasant surprise, the Carrot Veggie Spirals were quite enjoyable. In fact, I liked them enough that I went out and bought a jar of low carb spaghetti sauce and some microwave meatballs for the leftovers — a wonderful culinary experience and fabulous low carb alternative to spaghetti (minus the presentation, as red sauce on orange “pasta” isn’t exactly a fashion statement). I enjoyed this so much that the Carrot Veggie Spirals have earned a permanent spot in my freezer.

To be honest, never a fan of beets, I had low expectations going in, which is why I saved these for last. Like the carrot product, the Beets Veggie Spirals are thick-cut, but much shorter, somewhat the size of macaroni. They’re a somewhat unappetizing raw meat color.

Here’s the skinny on this flavor of Veggie Spirals:

Nutritional information:

  • Serving size: 3/4 cup
  • Calories: 35
  • Carbs: 6 net (8 minus 2 for fiber)

Cooking and preparation: Microwave cooking time was a whopping 8 1/2 minutes, again cooking in the package, and again with the peel-back cover. There was very close to the full four servings promised in the package and, like the carrots, there was no water to drain off.

Taste: What can I say? The damn things taste like beets!

Consistency: Like the carrots, the beets have a consistency that’s not unlike pasta, but the stronger flavor and an overpowering beet smell made it hard for me to pretend I was eating pasta.

Blood sugar report:

  • Baseline: 114
  • At 1 hour: 122
  • At 3 hours: 94

Critic’s rating: 3 stars. Once again, an incredible blood sugar result after eating. And despite the problems, I think the beets are the second-best bet in this product line if you’re after faux pasta. Be sure not to touch them with your fingers or drop any strands on a light-colored floor, as the natural coloring of beets is a strong dye. In the dish, the bright red seeped into my white sauce, creating an effect that reminded me of Klingon food from the Star Trek next-gen TV shows. And anecdotally, all though this didn’t happen to me, some people experience peeing red after eating beets. Even though I gave them three stars, I did not consume the leftovers, as I don’t think they hold up well.

Of course, no good scientific study is complete without a control, so I decided to conduct the same experiment on “real” pasta for comparison’s sake.

But when I planned this, I hadn’t counted on the COVID-19 pandemic. When I arrived at the pasta aisle of my local grocery store, the shelves were literally bare. Luckily, I found one package of pasta on the bottom shelf, somehow overlooked by panicky shoppers. It was Barilla Angel Hair, a very respectable brand, if not my favorite shape of pasta. Still, it isn’t unlike spaghetti squash in diameter.

Here’s the skinny on Barilla Angel Hair:

Nutritional information:

  • Serving size: 2 ounces
  • Calories: 200
  • Carbs: 39 net (42 minus 3 for fiber)

Cooking and preparation: There’s no microwaving of this product. I boiled it stovetop, with some olive oil and salt for my mile-high altitude, until it was al dente, and then strained it. Once the water was up to a boil, with the small size of the noodles, it took less time to cook than the Veggie Spirals did, but was a bit more involved.

Taste: Perfect, as expected.

Consistency: Perfect, as expected.

Blood sugar report:

  • Baseline: 101
  • At 1 hour: peaking just below 200
  • At 3 hours: 132

Critic’s rating: 5 stars. Of course, traditional pasta has a ton of calories and carbs compared with a heap of microwave-steamed frozen veggies. But let’s face it, pasta is the perfect carrier for sauce.

As a substitute carrier for sauce, several of the veggie noodles show promise, and, in my opinion, the carrot product actually succeeds. It’s interesting that the two root veggies seemed more pasta-like than the two veggies that grow above ground.

It could be that, as roots, they have greater structural integrity, and that results in a more pasta-like experience on the palate. Or it may simply be due to the fact that they’re cut thicker. In addition, they were less slimy, absorbing water rather than wallowing in it.

Some of the veggie noodles have a flavor that overwhelms a mild-flavored pasta sauce, but it might stand up better to something more savory.

The net impact on my blood sugar from all the veggie noodles was quite minimal, which isn’t unexpected but great to see. Ironically, the better-tasting carrots and beets delivered a larger 1-hour bump than the other two, but it was well below post-meal glucose target levels.

Personally, I was delighted to discover in the carrot product a spaghetti alternative I actually enjoyed, because while I love spaghetti, it doesn’t love me. Or at least my diabetes. So I guess I found my diabetes ambrosia.

Wil Dubois lives with type 1 diabetes and is the author of five books on the illness, including “Taming The Tiger” and “Beyond Fingersticks.” He spent many years helping treat patients at a rural medical center in New Mexico. An aviation enthusiast, Wil lives in Las Vegas, NM, with his wife and son, and one too many cats.