Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ramen are common but take stock of their dark side

image: QuickMeme
Who hasn't eaten instant ramen noodles?

They're faster, cheaper, and saltier than KFC or a Big Mac. They're super easy and so popular that they are a staple food across many countries.

That beloved staple of college students, new graduates, and people everywhere with limited time or cooking skills, is, not surprisingly, also ubiquitous all over eastern and southern Asia.

And, as you might guess from the packaging and instant nature of them, they're not on any government recommended food pyramids. But you'd probably already guessed that, right?

But are they really that bad for us?

In pure form, ramen noodles are not so bad.

Ramen is originally a Japanese noodle soup made with thin wheat noodles in a meat or fish broth, usually seasoned with soy sauce or miso and topped with sliced pork, dried seaweed, bean sprouts, processed fish roll, and green onions. While the noodles are basically flour, starch, salt and water, a dish of homemade ramen with fresh veggies and seafood or pork is a decent and hearty meal (shown here, with step-by-step eating instructions for newbies).

homemade shio ramen
photo: STRONGlk7, Wikimedia Commons

Instant ramen noodles -- first exported from Japan in 1971 -- are a different story. These noodles have been deep-fried to preserve them, and the package is a "meal" that is high in refined carbohydrates and fat, but low in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. In their processed, "instant," form, ramen noodles are also super high in salt: a typical cup-o-instant-noodles contains 2700 mg of sodium (per 100 g), nearly double the current U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance of 1,500 mg/day.

Eating too much salt can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, and people across east Asia eat a lot of instant ramen. Instant noodles are so popular and have so much negative press about their nutritional and chemical value that Dr. Hyun Joon Shin and colleagues decided to investigate whether there was really a connection between eating a lot of instant noodles and poor health, independent of overall dietary patterns.

South Korea has more instant noodle eaters per capita than any other country and has recently faced a rapid increase in health problems, specifically heart disease, and a growing number of overweight adults, according to Shin, so it served as their test population.

The researchers asked over 10,000 adults 63 food-related questions and identified 2 main dietary patterns:
  • the “traditional" diet, which was high in rice, fish, vegetables, fruit, and potatoes, and
  • the “meat and fast-food" diet, which included less rice but was rich in meat, soda, fried food, and fast food, including instant noodles.

traditional Asian dinner
add more rice for better representation
photo: USNews

traditional Western dinner
add fast food for better representation
photo: FoodSafety

The group with the highest meat-fast food scores had more frequent abdominal obesity, high LDL (bad for you) cholesterol, decreased prevalence of low HDL (good for you) cholesterol, and high triglycerides. All of these are risk factors for cardiometabolic syndrome, a collection of abnormalities affecting the body’s cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic systems that strongly increase risk of heart disease and stroke. The opposite was true for the group with high scores for a traditional diet (fewer in this group had high blood pressure or abdominal obesity).

The researchers found that, regardless of dietary pattern, a connection between eating instant noodles 2 or more times per week and cardiometabolic syndrome, particularly in women.

Not only the lack of nutrients and high amounts of salt and saturated fat, but also several unhealthy ingredients, including MSG and the chemical preservative tertiary-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), might be to blame. Another potential issue with instant noodles is eating them instead of other, more nutritious, foods, and missing out on key vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Shin, the lead researcher, suggests that differences in both biology (sex hormones, metabolism) and behavior (overall diet, accuracy in reporting what they actually ate) might explain the gender difference.

Asian fast food, now universally loved and slurped
photo: The Hoya
It's not just the ingredients, but also the packaging -- many instant noodle meals come packaged in Styrofoam, which contains a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), which is known to interfere with how hormones, specifically estrogen, send messages through the body — which is also why women could have been more affected in this study.

So if you love instant ramen, and it's likely you do, you are not alone. Some 4,300 billion instant noodle units were sold in the U.S. in 2013, ranking it 6th globally in instant noodle sales, according to the World Instant Noodles Association (this is just behind China, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, and India — and one spot above South Korea, in fact).

And if you are going to eat them (sparingly, please!), The Ramen Rater can suggest which ones you should try.

You might, however, consider homemade ramen if you can -- they provide more nutrients, fresh (rather than deep-fried) noodles, and fewer weird petroleum-based chemicals, and they come in a bowl, rather than a plastic bag or Styrofoam container.

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