Instant ramen has long-term health concerns, study finds


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Ah, yes, ramen noodles -- fast, cheap, tasty.

And unhealthy, particularly for women, a new study has found.

Published in The Journal of Nutrition, the study of the diets of 10,711 adults using data from a two-year survey of South Koreans found that eating two or more servings a week could lead to an increase in heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. In fact, women who ate instant noodles at least twice weekly had a 68 percent increase in cardiometabolic syndrome, regardless of what else their diet included.

The uptick wasn’t found in men, and the study didn’t address why the health consequences differed between men and women.

But ramen noodles are not seen as a healthy choice for either gender, given the large amounts of salt, artificial flavors and preservatives they contain. 

Because of the findings, tears are dripping into that steaming bowl of ramen around the globe, including in Pittsburgh. And no wonder. With 91.6 billion -- yes, billion -- servings purchased per year around the world, instant noodles are a staple in Asian countries and the go-to dish for ravenous and sometimes inebriated college students, harried parents and others in the U.S. who value the low cost, easy preparation and flavor.

So beloved is the dish that poems and songs are written about ramen (seriously, Google it); there is a Facebook page, “I Love Ramen Noodles,” with 26,785 likes; and people purchase the product by the case. 

Ramen is most consumed in Asian countries, with China and Hong Kong leading the world with 46 billion servings bought in 2013. The United States ranked sixth worldwide with 4.3 billion servings.

The popularity of instant noodles is easy to understand, said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. “It’s fast, cheap and filling and you can be domestically disabled and not screw up ramen. But what seems inexpensive could be a huge cost to someone’s heart health and overall health.”

But dry those tears. You can have your health and eat ramen, too.

The biggest issue with instant noodles, Ms. Bonci said, is not just what it has in it --“It’s so incredibly salty”-- but what it doesn’t have, namely protein and vegetables. Even though she hadn’t seen the study, the subject of ramen noodles came up in her meetings this week with University of Pittsburgh athletes about developing healthier eating habits.

“I told them to get creative with ramen, to be a ramen chef, to add tuna and peas or chicken and broccoli instead of having it alone. Use half of the seasoning if you use it. Or mix the ramen with beans and a little salad dressing. It’s pretty darn easy to open up tuna and peas [and add it to the noodles]. You don’t have to be a five-star chef.”

Judith Dodd, a University of Pittsburgh nutrition professor and registered dietitian, agreed that the problems with instant noodles is both the high salt content in the flavoring “and the fact it is touted as a complete meal.”

“Leave out the seasoning and you’d be in better shape,” she said. “ You could take the same noodles, if that’s what you really like, and saute some vegetables in olive oil, add some tofu or leftover meat and make a real meal out of it. It can be the start of a meal but people are using it as a meal by itself.”

Mike Boyd, 36, of Wilkins, said he didn’t find the report surprising “since most inexpensive processed convenience foods are not particularly healthy options. For health reasons -- avoiding artificial flavorings, preservatives, and so forth -- I go for the organic ramen packs available at the co-op.

“I typically use red miso paste, tamari, wakame seaweed, homemade vegetable stock,and fresh ingredients like mushrooms, garlic, veggies, grilled tofu whatever else seems compelling at the time.”

According to the World Instant Noodles Association (yes, there really is such an organization), Momofuku Ando of Japan invented “Chicken Ramen,” the first instant noodle product in 1958. He also invented “Cup Noodle,” a concept in which a single container serves as packaging, cooking vessel and serving bowl.

So popular is the quick dish that the Associated Press reported, “The study has provoked feelings of wounded pride, mild guilt, stubborn resistance, even nationalism among South Koreans, who eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone in the world.”

There’s no shortage of cookbooks devoted to being creative with instant noodles. Amazon advertises more than three dozen instant noodle cookbooks, including “101 Things to Do with Ramen Noodles.” 

Ramen fan Chrissie Koerber, 38, of Greenfield said she “discovered them in my impoverished-post-college days. I love them and may or may not have passed that passion and love onto [three of my] four children”

She said the family buys a carton of ramen every summer and after boiling the noodles for three minutes and draining them, adds about one-fourth cup of cheddar cheese and only half of the flavoring packet. “That makes them healthier, right?

”My little one loves them. It is our go-to meal on a day that I don’t have much else. But we are really a healthy family otherwise!”

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

 


Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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