Instant noodles are a convenient and tasty dish that is popular worldwide. The number one global consumer is China, and the United States is ranked sixth in instant noodle sales, with 4,300 billion units sold in 2013. In June 2014, a comprehensive study was published in The Journal of Nutrition that revealed the dangers lurking inside your cup of noodles. According to the international group of scientists, instant noodles are associated with cardio-metabolic risks, which mainly refer to the risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It seems that the handy and delicious dish comes at a price.
The study was conducted in South Korea, which has the highest per-capita number of instant noodle consumers in the world. Also, in recent years, a higher proportion of Koreans started developing conditions such as heart disease and obesity, so it seemed worthwhile to explore the reasons behind this decline in health.
A total of 10,711 adults (54.5% women) between the ages of 19 and 64 were included in the study. Their dietary patterns were analyzed by Hyoun Shin, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health, and his colleagues. Two major dietary patterns were identified: the “traditional dietary pattern”, rich in rice, fish, vegetables, fruit, and potatoes, and the “meat and fast-food pattern”, rich in meat, soda, fried food, and fast food including instant noodles. The researchers observed that people who ate traditional food, were more unlikely to suffer from high blood pressure. Fast food diet was associated with abdominal obesity, higher levels of LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol), and high triglycerides, which all increase the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome.
When Shin looked specifically at instant noodles, the analysis showed that women who ate more than two portions per week had a higher chance of developing metabolic syndrome, which is linked to heart conditions, stroke and diabetes. The association was found even among young women who were slimmer and more physically active. The correlation was not observed in men.
If we look at the composition of instant noodles, it becomes clear where the danger comes from. They are high in fat, high in salt, high in calories, and they’re processed. They also contain tertiary-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ), which is a chemical preservative that comes from the petroleum industry. A number of studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high doses of TBHQ may be carcinogenic, but small doses have been approved for consumption by the FDA. The flavoring powder of the noodles includes salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG), seasoning, and sugar.
In the US, instant noodles are often referred to as Ramen. However, real Japanese Ramen is not a fast food dish. It’s a noodle soup which is Japan’s cultural icon, so a lot of care is put into its preparation. When instant noodles were first invented, they started selling them under the brand name ‘Chikin Ramen’. Soon, instant noodles became known as Ramen outside of Japan, even if they are technically not Ramen.
By Jenny Hills