From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Conducive to or associated with good health or reduced risk of disease.
If that’s the criteria we’re using to determine if ramen is healthy, the answer is clearly “no.” Ramen doesn’t contribute to good health or a reduced risk of disease – but then again, neither does an ice cream sundae. That doesn’t mean that healthy people should completely avoid either of them.
Each provides a clear benefit. A delicious, gooey ice cream sundae can put a little joy into a summer’s day. And for years, instant ramen has been a very inexpensive, tasty and quick comfort food for college students, office workers on a tight schedule, or people on a tight budget.
So the real question isn’t “is ramen healthy?” Here are the right questions to ask: “is instant ramen really bad for you, and should you avoid eating it?
Let’s grab a spoon or some chopsticks, and dig in. Bear in mind, though, that our first section deals with only the brands of ramen commonly purchased in a grocery store or on Amazon – and not the healthier alternatives you can find with a little extra knowledge (which we’ll provide shortly).
Instant Ramen and Nutrition
Instant Ramen, whether it’s Maruchan, Top Ramen, Nissin Cup Noodles or any other major brand, comes with just two basic ingredients: dehydrated noodles and a sauce or seasoning packet.
Many of the real issues become clear, however, when we look at the ingredients’ ingredients. Let’s talk about noodles first.
Instant Ramen Noodles
There are lots of reasons why ramen noodle soup is so popular, not only in America but around the world. It’s incredibly inexpensive, it can be prepared in just a few minutes, all you need to make it is some boiling water – and the packages can sit on the shelf for months until you’re ready to make it. How can noodles made from wheat flour remain edible for so long?
Most preservatives are artificial, and that alone could be objectionable to some consumers. The bigger problem, though, is one specific preservative found in almost every brand of ramen: tertiary-butyl hydroquinone, or tBHQ for short.
tBHQ is a synthetic compound with antioxidant properties, but not really enough of them to provide health benefits when you consume it. It’s such a good preservative because it delays the oxidation of fat in foods like instant noodles and microwave popcorn – and oxidation is one big reason why foods lose their color and flavor, and eventually spoil.
The Food and Drug Administration classifies tBHQ as “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) in small amounts. Unfortunately, it’s contained in all sorts of foods, including cooking oils, packaged and processed foods like Pop-Arts and Cheez-Its, soft drinks, frozen fish and even some brands of soy milk. That means tBHQ consumption can add up and rapidly exceed the “acceptable” daily amount that’s been set by the FDA.
And that, in turn, can potentially cause health problems. tBHQ activates a protein in the body that may harm immune responses, contribute to vision and neurological problems, damage red blood cells, and possibly even promote the growth of cancer cells. There’s some evidence that tBHQ may cause or worsen food allergies, too.
That’s not a great start, and there are other less-than-optimal ingredients in dehydrated ramen noodles like potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate as well. And of course, anything made from wheat flour is a problem for those with gluten sensitivity. But let’s move on.
Instant Ramen Flavorings
You’ll usually find a flavor packet in a package or cup of instant ramen noodles, although a few brands give you liquid sauce instead of the dry flavoring ingredients.
What’s in that packet? Here’s an ingredient list from Maruchan soy sauce flavor instant ramen:
Salt, Monosodium Glutamate, Dehydrated Soy Sauce (Wheat, Soybeans, Salt), Sugar, Dehydrated Vegetables (Garlic, Onion, Chive), Caramel Color, Spices, Beef Extract, Maltodextrin, Hydrolyzed Corn Protein, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Vegetable Oil (Palm), Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate, Natural Flavor, Yeast Extract, Lactose.
There’s a lot to unpack there, and we won’t even bother dealing with the myriad number of natural and artificial additives. Instead, we’ll just focus on one: monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
MSG (umami in Japanese) is one of the savory “core flavors” of Asian foods. That’s why it’s commonly used as a flavor enhancer in the Chinese food we love in America. The distinctive taste of MSG is certainly a positive – but what’s known as “MSG Symptom Complex” is definitely a negative.
You may have heard this collection of symptoms referred to by another name, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS). And you may have experienced – or known people who have experienced – the headache, sweating, flushing, nausea, weakness and chest pains that can be suffered by those are sensitive to MSG when it’s used as a food additive. The reactions are almost always temporary, but can be unpleasant.
For decades, there have also been allegations linking MSG to more serious health issues like cancer, but research has failed to prove any of them. Even so, a fairly common food sensitivity like CRS certainly doesn’t argue in favor of calling ramen “healthy.”
Mix the noodles and flavor packet together with boiling water, and you get a bowl of ramen soup. In most cases, the “final product” can’t really be considered a healthy food, either.
Nutritional Values of Instant Ramen
For about fifty years, the FDA has required nutritional labeling on most foods. That makes it relatively easy to figure out how good (or bad) the foods are for your health. To make things simple, we’ve taken the nutrition facts from packages of Maruchan and Top Ramen chicken flavor ramen noodles.
The number that stands out most is the high sodium content, which is between 1600 and 1700 milligrams per serving – that’s why ramen is so salty. (To be fair, the companies claim their ramen contains half that amount of sodium, but only because they also claim there are two servings of ramen soup per package. Anyone who’s made Maruchan and Top Ramen knows that there’s really just one serving in each package.)
1600-1700 milligrams is about 70% of the maximum amount of sodium that the government recommends consuming in an entire day. And too much sodium in the diet has been shown to contribute to a number of health problems including heart disease and high blood pressure.
Is that much salt in a bowl of soup healthy? The answer is obvious.
Let’s keep going. The packages of ramen contain 380 calories apiece, which wouldn’t be bad at all for a healthy meal. Unfortunately, those are what nutritionists call “empty calories.” Instant ramen generally contains less than ten grams of protein, and contains virtually no important micronutrients like vitamins A or C, or minerals like magnesium, potassium or calcium. Small amounts of iron, B vitamins or potassium may be added to some products, but not enough to make a dent.
Carbs? There are about 52 grams of carbs in a package of instant ramen. You’d expect lots of carbs in a noodle-based soup, but there’s only two grams of fiber in these dehydrated noodles. That equals 50 net carbs per serving, meaning there’s almost one-fifth of an adult’s daily recommended amount of carbohydrates in a single bowl of ramen. And it’s no secret that consuming too many carbs can contribute to problems like obesity, increased blood sugar and diabetes, heart disease and cancer. (Thankfully, ramen contains no cholesterol to make the issues even worse.)
We can’t forget about fat, either. While ramen may not contain as much fat as your favorite fast food, it isn’t that far behind: there are almost 15 grams of fat per serving, half of it saturated fat. That’s nearly one-quarter of the recommended daily allowance of fat, and 35% of the maximum for saturated fat. Once again, ramen is not a terrific addition to a healthy eating plan – and won’t help with weight loss, either.
The nutritional information combines to paint a very clear picture of a food that definitely can’t be considered “healthy.” However, a research project studying the eating habits of South Korean students in Seoul (where instant noodles are a popular food) summed it all up pretty well. The study found that regularly eating ramen led to an increased risk of cardiometabolic problems like obesity, high blood pressure, high glucose and triglyceride levels, and metabolic syndrome.
To be clear, you’re never going to find “healthy ramen.” Even the delicious soup served at the growing number of ramen shops and Asian restaurants throughout America will never be as “healthy” as a bowl of brown rice, because of the carbs and fat that ramen naturally contains.
What you can do, however, is make your ramen healthier.
Choosing the Right Ramen
We’ve mentioned the major brands of instant ramen, like Top Ramen and Maruchan, several times in this article. If you look further than your local supermarket shelves, though, you can find healthier alternatives.
One of the best is Public Goods Original Ramen Noodles. This ramen contains 290 calories per serving, instead of 380. It contains just three grams of fat instead of 15 grams, and almost all of it is unsaturated fat.
And just as importantly, Public Goods ramen is vegan and all-natural. It’s made from wheat flour, salt, water, soy sauce and sesame oil. Nothing else. No preservatives, no additives, and best of all, no tBHQ or MSG. The lack of preservatives means its shelf life is much shorter than that of supermarket ramen, but that’s a small price to pay.
This ramen does still contain lots of carbs and sodium; after all, by definition ramen is made from carb-loaded noodles and Asian ingredients (like soy sauce) that contain lots of salt. This is a tasty, much-healthier instant ramen, however – and you can make it even better with just a little work.
Making Ramen More Nutritious
The ramen you order at a restaurant won’t contain only noodles and broth, like the packets on your shelf or in your pantry. It won’t even be noodles and healthier sauce, like you get with Public Goods ramen. Restaurant ramen will also contain a number of healthy vegetables and proteins – and that’s how you can make “homemade” instant ramen much healthier.
It only takes a minute to chop up some green onions and drop some fresh bean sprouts into your bowl of ramen to make it more authentic, more delicious and better for you. But why stop there? Taking a few more minutes to add other veggies like mushrooms, cabbage, pea pods or carrots (or some of your other personal favorites), and perhaps a protein like tofu or cooked chicken or seafood, will complete the transformation of your ordinary instant ramen into a much nutritious, yummier, complete meal.
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