As the school year approaches, it seems appropriate to examine a staple in both school lunches and college dorm-room diets: instant ramen. Ramen was a huge part of my middle school diet. My parents, however, worried constantly about what the ramen noodles were doing to my health, and they had good reason to be concerned.
HEALTH CONCERNS WITH INSTANT RAMEN.
A 2014 study conducted by Baylor University researchers found that people who consume the chemically preserved instant noodles are at a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.”
“While instant noodle intake is greater in Asian communities, the association between instant noodle consumption and metabolic syndrome has not been widely studied,” Dr. Hyun Joon Shin, lead scientist for the study, said in a release. “I decided to investigate in order to uncover more distinct connections.”
Because the South Korean population has seen increased rates of heart disease, the researchers focused on South Korea for this particular study, which found that those who consume ramen noodles more than twice a week often suffered from metabolic syndrome. Women who consumed the most ramen noodles had the highest risk of suffering from metabolic syndrome. This was the case regardless of their exercise levels or what other foods they ate.
Dr. Shin said the prevalence in women suffering from metabolic syndrome is likely due to hormone and metabolism levels. The most important thing, Dr. Shin said, is that we all become more aware of what we’re putting in our bodies.
“This research is significant since many people are consuming instant noodles without knowing possible health risks,” Dr. Shin said. “My hope is that this study can lay a foundation for future research about the health effects of instant noodle consumption.”
Though she was not involved in the study, nutritionist and New York University professor Lisa Young told Live Science last year that the findings could very well apply to Americans.
“We [in the States] don’t eat [ramen] as much, but the ramen noodles are being sold, so this could apply to anywhere they’re sold, and they’re sold almost everywhere,” she said. “Instant noodles are high in fat, high in salt, high in calories, and they’re processed, all those factors could contribute to some of the health problems [the researchers] addressed. That doesn’t mean that every single person is going to respond the same way, but the piece to keep in mind is that it’s not a healthy product, and it is a processed food.”
Young suggests not eating ramen daily and controlling one’s portions. That said, ramen salt levels are high because they’re meant to last for a very long time, and it’s important not to overload your diet with processed foods.
“[S]o long as my daily menus remain weighted heavily toward the fresh fruits, veggies, beans, nuts and cooked whole grains, I forgive myself the occasional lapse into those inner aisles of the supermarket,” NYC-based registered dietician Tamara Duker Freuman wrote in 2013.
NOT EVERYONE CAN AFFORD TO NOT EAT RAMEN.
Not everyone can just quit instant ramen consumption—just ask any low-income family or financially struggling college student And major aspect of instant ramen is its low price point. According to the Huffington Post, “it will only cost you $142.65 dollars a year if you decide to live off of it.”
In 2014 NPR wrote about how instant ramen noodles are helping feed the poor and the hungry. Anthropologists Deborah Gewertz of Amherst College, Frederick Errington of Trinity College, and Tatsuro Fujikura of Kyoto University are especially interested in the role of ramen noodles. From NPR:
“Instant noodles do good by alleviating the hunger of millions of people around the world. These supercheap, superpalatable noodles, they write, help the low-wage workers in rich and poor countries alike hang on when the going gets tough.”
“I’d love to take Michael Pollan to a squatter settlement and have him deal with poor, hungry people in such circumstances, who have no choice of going back home to grow subsistence crops or be part of a regional food system,” Gewertz told NPR, referring to food writer Michael Pollen, who advocates for “real food” over processed food. “Subsistence agriculture is hard, dirty and hot work. People want out of it. It’s not to be over romanticized.”
Gewertz however, does concede that instant ramen noodles could be healthier. From NPR:
“Instead, as Gerwertz tells us, a better way to help the poor who rely on ramen is to make the noodles more nutritious: They could be ‘reduced-sodium, lower-fat, higher-fiber, better fortified,’ though that will also translate into a slightly higher price.”