Kids often feel a sense of relief when they finally go away to college or move out of the house.
Here’s one big reason: their parents aren’t around to constantly nag them.
“Clean your room and then do your homework!”
“Come home and go to bed. It’s a school night!”
And of course, “Put that ramen back in the cabinet. It’s bad for you!”
College students, and those living on their own, decide when to clean their room, do their homework and go to bed – and they get to eat ramen whenever they want. In fact, it may be almost all they can afford for a while.
Sooner or later, though, we realize that our parents were usually right more than they were wrong. And they were definitely right about those 25-50¢ packages of instant ramen like Maruchan and Top Ramen.
Why is ramen bad for you? And is there anything you can do to make this addictive, inexpensive meal any healthier?
Yes, there is. But let’s answer the first question first.
Instant Ramen: Why it’s Usually a Nutritional Disaster
Those packages or cups of instant ramen noodles are immensely popular, not just in America, but around the world.
Believe it or not, the U.S. is only sixth in worldwide ramen consumption. More than 100 billion servings of the Japanese instant noodles are eaten every year, with China consuming 40 billion of them and Indonesia second at 12 billion. America comes in at a surprisingly-low four billion servings of instant ramen per year, although that number temporarily soared nearly 600% at the start of the Covid pandemic.
That’s still a lot of ramen – and more than anything else, it’s a lot of salt.
If you’ve ever eaten instant ramen (and who hasn’t?), the first thing you probably noticed was how salty it was. That wasn’t your taste buds playing tricks on you.
The two most popular brands of ramen noodle soup in America, Maruchan and Top Ramen, each contain about 1660 milligrams of sodium per serving. Almost every other brand of instant ramen has similarly-high sodium content.
If 1600 milligrams sounds like a lot, it is. It’s well over two-thirds of the recommended maximum amount an adult should consume in an entire day, just in one packet or cup of ramen soup. (The companies claim that a packet of their ramen really contains two servings, but we all know that’s not realistic; they do that simply to make the per-serving nutritional data look better.) That’s even more salt than there is in most processed foods – and we all know they’re not good for you, either.
You probably know that eating too much salt can cause health problems, but it’s even worse than you might think. Excessive sodium consumption has been linked not only to high blood pressure, but to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and stomach cancer as well.
Fat, Carbs and Calories
When you think about fatty fast foods, you’re right to think about choices like burgers loaded with cheese and bacon, or stuffed crust pepperoni pizza.
Instant ramen doesn’t contain as much fat as those yummy (and unhealthy) choices, but it’s not that far behind. One packet of the ramen you pick up at the grocery store contains about 14 grams of fat, or 22% of the recommended daily maximum. Even worse, half of that fat is saturated fat, which is 35% of the maximum amount the government recommends consuming in a single day.
There are a lot of carbohydrates in ramen as well, which is not surprising since it’s a noodle soup. There are more than 50 grams of carbs in each packet; almost all of them are net carbs, since there’s very little fiber in ramen noodles. 50 grams is nearly 20% of a day’s worth of carbohydrates; high carb consumption can boost blood sugar levels and contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
The news isn’t great when it comes to calories, either. One packet or cup of supermarket instant ramen contains 380 calories, about 15-20% of the total calories recommended by the FDA for a healthy adult. That wouldn’t be so bad if those were healthy calories, but ramen is notably low in nutritional value.
Other than iron and B vitamins, which are sometimes added to the noodles’ wheat flour, ramen contains little protein (less than ten grams) and almost no other micronutrients like vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium and magnesium. (Top Ramen, to be fair, does contain a bit of potassium.) In short, the calories in instant ramen are empty calories; the only bright side is that there’s no cholesterol in ramen.
Not surprisingly, a South Korean research study has shown that eating foods like ramen, with lots of fat, carbs and calories, increases the risk factors for obesity and metabolic syndrome.
And there are hidden dangers in instant ramen, too.
Ramen and Food Additives
Making instant ramen couldn’t be easier. All you need is the dehydrated noodles and flavor packet that come in the package, and some boiling water. And you can store the packages for months without them going bad.
There’s the first problem. Storing most foods for prolonged periods of time requires preservatives, and those additives can often cause health issues. One of those troublesome preservatives is a synthetic compound called tBHQ (tertiary-butyl hydroquinone), and it’s commonly used in instant ramen noodles. tBHQ definitely prolongs the shelf life of the noodles and contributes a small amount of antioxidant properties, but it also appears to damage cellular DNA and may cause vision problems and other long-term health issues, including cancer.
The flavorings in instant ramen flavor packets aren’t all good for you, either. Most include the same “flavor enhancer” commonly found in Chinese food, monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that MSG is “generally recognized as safe,” and early studies linking it to cancer have never been substantiated. Here’s the problem that has been substantiated, though: “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
Many people are hypersensitive to MSG and they often experience excess sweatiness, headaches and/or stomach pain for a few hours after consuming it. The phenomenon is known medically as MSG symptom complex, but is more commonly referred to by the catchier phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Whatever you call it, it’s not pleasant and it’s definitely a risk when consuming instant ramen.
There’s one final issue for those who buy cheap ramen in Styrofoam cups that aren’t certified microwave-safe. Ordinary Styrofoam containers, when heated, can release chemicals like dioxin and benzene into food. Most major brands that sell instant ramen in cups use safe containers – but some don’t.
That’s a pretty big list of reasons why ramen is bad for you. Is ramen ever healthy?
Not really. But you can buy healthier instant ramen, and you can make it even healthier with just a little work.
Finding the Healthiest Instant Ramen
Top Ramen and Maruchan aren’t the only brands of instant ramen. There are dozens of them, and many tasty ones have “legitimate” Asian flavors like miso, duck and coconut instead of the standard chicken, beef and something called “Oriental.”
Sadly, most are just as bad for you as the top-selling brands. You have to do some searching to find healthier instant ramen – and there are a few good choices. The best may be the Original Ramen Noodles sold by Public Goods.
Compared to the other brands we’ve mentioned, Public Goods ramen is much lower in calories (290), fat (3 grams), and saturated fat (0.4 grams). It does contain a lot of sodium, but less than the Maruchan and Top Ramen brands. And just as importantly, this ramen doesn’t contain tBHQ (or other preservatives), MSG, or the laundry list of other additives or artificial flavors commonly found in instant ramen. It’s made from just five ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, soy sauce and white sesame oil.
You won’t find this instant ramen at the supermarket or on Amazon; it’s only sold on their website.
So we’ve gotten to healthier ramen. How do we get to healthiest?
The best way is to emulate the approach taken in the thousands of ramen shops around the world, including a growing number throughout the United States: add healthy ingredients to the soup.
Most “authentic” ramen contains a nice assortment of fresh veggies. Adding them to your instant ramen will immediately boost its nutritional value while elevating its flavor.
Green onions (scallions) and bean sprouts are the ones most commonly added to ramen noodles, but you can use your imagination to create a ramen soup to your specific tastes. Seaweed, pea pods, bok choy, mushrooms and thinly sliced cabbage will add a definite Asian flair to your ramen, but there’s no reason you can’t add spinach, lettuce, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, Brussels sprouts or anything else you may have in your refrigerator.
You can take the same approach to proteins. Adding tofu cubes, tempeh or edamame may make you feel like you’re dining in an Asian restaurant, but chicken, beef, pork or shellfish can work just as well. They’ll contribute a valuable and essential nutrient – protein – while also filling you up and making instant ramen more of a meal than a quick snack.
Unless you purchase pre-cut veggies or pre-cooked proteins, you’ll have to spend a little more time preparing healthy ramen than you would just heating up some water and stirring it into your noodles and seasonings.
But turning instant ramen into a much healthier meal is worth that small investment of time and energy.
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