This popular go-to meal isn’t good for you, but there are things you can do to make it better.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about ramen, the popular go-to meal for college students, people with limited time, and those on a tight budget: that brick of dried noodles is supposed to be two servings.
Many versions and brands of ramen noodles are available. There are those that come in the familiar brick with the little seasoning packet. Some come in a Styrofoam cup — just add hot water and voila, instant meal. Or, there’s the version that cooks in a “convenient microwavable tray,” which is plastic, and comes with “hearty vegetables and seasonings.”
Most ramen meals score between 8 and 10 on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Food Scores website. EWG’s Food Scores is a database created to help consumers make healthier, greener food choices. It has ratings for more than 80,000 products based on nutrition, ingredient concerns, and processing. A rating of 1 is best, 10 is worst.
What’s wrong with ramen?
What’s so bad about these unassuming packages of noodles that come in brightly colored wrappers with an amazing array of flavors? Let’s start with the ingredients list. Without exception, the first ingredient is wheat flour, and the second is vegetable oil. For the most part, these so-called meals are nearly devoid of nutritional value.
They are also high in total fat and saturated fat, and their sodium content is over the top. Often, salt is the third ingredient. Many have 33 percent of the recommended intake of sodium per serving. If you’re like most people, you eat the entire package, and if you use the whole seasoning packet you’re getting a whopping 66 percent of the recommended upper limit for sodium intake in one sitting.
A highly processed food
Ramen is also a highly processed food. By now, most everyone has heard the advice to stay away from manufactured foods as much as possible. Highly processed foods require very little digestion, resulting in a rapid rise in blood sugar, typically followed by a brain-numbing crash.
Additionally, highly processed foods — and ramen is no exception — are loaded with fake flavors from chemicals including MSG, along with preservatives, anti-caking agents, artificial coloring, and ingredients like soy, wheat, and sugar that may be genetically altered.
Not a complete meal
Some ramen kits advertise themselves as “meals” because they contain a few bits of dehydrated vegetables and maybe some powered chicken meat. But when it comes down to it, a meal of ramen is not much more than a dose of highly processed carbohydrates, fat, and salt. Plus, if you’re eating the whole two-serving package, you may be consuming nearly 400 calories for almost no nutritional benefit.
If you’re going to consume those calories, why not make sure you’re getting the recommended amount of protein (ramen contains a little), fiber so you stay full, vitamins and other nutrients that come from fresh fruits and vegetables, and some healthy fat rather than the saturated variety found in instant noodles?
A note about packaging
One study of instant noodle consumption in South Korea showed that women who ate ramen more than twice a week had a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome and abdominal obesity. The same was not true for men who ate the same amount. South Koreans ate 3.4 billion packages of ramen in 2010, making them the largest consumers of instant noodles in the world.
More research is needed, but investigators think the effects in women may be partly due to chemicals in the Styrofoam packaging ramen often comes in. Styrofoam is known to contain bisphenol A (BPA), which has been shown to mimic estrogen and interfere with the body’s natural ability to regulate weight, among other things.
Some other brands of ramen come in microwavable plastic containers. Research is ongoing, but some has shown that just storing food in plastic containers increases exposure to harmful chemicals. Other research has indicated that cooking food in plastic causes it to leach chemicals into food. On the other hand, food packaging is approved by the USDA for specific uses. If a package indicates it’s safe for microwave use, it has been approved by the USDA for that use, and any chemicals that are leached are at or below USDA’s acceptable levels.
Some better alternatives
If you just can’t give up your noodle fix, you can at least make it better for you. Start by minimizing how often you eat instant noodles and consider it a treat rather than a staple. When you do eat ramen, just use half of the seasoning packet to reduce your sodium consumption.
Switch to a healthier version. There are brands of instant noodles that are organic and made with non-GMO flour, have minimal ingredients, reasonable amounts of sodium, and no fat. If you don’t find a healthier variety in your store, search online for “organic ramen noodles.” They’re a little more expensive, but at under $2 a package, they’re still a pretty good value.
However, organic varieties are still high in carbohydrates and don’t really have any more nutritional value than the less healthy varieties. You can improve this by adding some protein, maybe a little leftover chicken or pork, and fresh or frozen vegetables to the noodles and broth.
If instant noodles are a regular part of your diet, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by finding a healthier option for your go-to meal.
June 01, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN