Instant ramen and cup noodles are very, very bad for you
(Edit note, May 2010. I have revived this piece from the deep archives. I wrote this originally written back in 2007, and since then the popularity of instant ramen has continued to grow.
Incidentally, I've gotten a fair number of angry emails and comments to this post over the years, as though I'm attacking a fundamental right of people or something. I find this very interesting.)
Perusing a number of links related to the food stamp budget experiments, a popular cheap food item that keeps coming up is instant ramen noodles. Indeed, instant ramen has become a go-to food for many people on tight budgets, including students.
As I wrote, even during my very lean (budget-wise) years I didn't try to fill up on instant ramen, since it has been ingrained for a long time in my mind - by my mother, by home economics and health classes in school in Japan, not to mention plain common sense - that instant ramen is quite nutritionally horrendous.
Some people erroneously think instant ramen is healthy just because it's Japanese. (This has been brought up here before. (Ramen is a dish with Chinese roots, but modern instant ramen was invented in Japan.) It's possible also that instant ramen seems healthy, because it's noodles in soup - and all soups are hot and nourishing and good for you, right? Not quite.
So what makes instant ramen bad? It's the manufacturing process. In order to create a dessicated, long-keeping noodle that cooks in a couple of minutes, it's deep-fried in oil. There are air-dried instant ramen varieties out there, but they take a bit longer to cook (though it's only about 5 minutes), and more importantly are not the real cheap kind. The 5-packs-for-a-buck kind are definitely not air dried.
To make things worse, the instant soup mix has more fat in it, not to mention a lot of sodium , monosodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives and other mystery ingredients. You may not be one of the people who is sensitive to the effects of MSG, but the high sodium content is definitely something be wary of.
Take a look at the nutritional information for Maruchan instant beef noodles for example, noting that they suggest a serving size of half a pack. When is the last time you ate just 1/2 a pack of instant ramen? A full pack, which is what most people have, is 380 calories, 126 of which are from fat, and most of the rest from white flour.
Cup noodles (also called cup ramen, pot noodles, etc.) are just as bad. The rather healthy sounding Nissin Chicken Flavor with Vegetable Medley have 290 calories per 1 cup serving, which come almost exclusively from fat, white flour, and sugar. And really, how satisfying is a cup noodle?
(Note: the previous label at Calorie Count had different numbers; this paragraph has been edited to reflect the new label. Also see this label reproduced on The Daily Plate, 1 cup is 1 serving, which contains 300 calories. Still, it contains 13 grams of fat (9 g saturated fat), 1060mg of sodium and the carbohydrates come from refined white flour. Do you still want to consider this a healthy snack?)
Now, I never said that you have to avoid instant ramen entirely. I don't believe in totally banning certain kinds of foods from your diet, since that leads to cravings, which build up and build up until you cave in to those cravings - more often than not in excessive amounts.
I eat instant ramen sometimes. I grew up with instant ramen - the brick kind was invented sometime before I was born, but cup noodles definitely were invented during my lifetime. I still remember the excitement I felt when I got my first UFO instant yakisoba - I mean, yakosoba in 3 minutes! Wow!
Whenever I'm back in Japan, I love to roam around the aisles of konbini (convenience stores) where they always have the latest and greatest in instant noodle products.
But you know, I also love potato chips, and Doritos, and even Pringles too. Do I eat them every day as a meal? Not on your life. Do you eat a bag of potato chips or Doritos as a meal? Do you let your kids eat things like that instead of lunch? Maybe you do, in which case go ahead and give them ramen too, but otherwise you may want to reconsider.
In short, cheap instant ramen is junk food, on the same plane as potato chips. You might as well eat Twinkies or Cheese Doodles instead. Really.
But, I like the convenience!
If you like cheap, quick-cook noodles, you can try thin pasta like spaghettini or angel-hair (capellini) or vermicelli - they are made of refined flour too, but aren't deep fried in oil. You can also look for air-dried instant ramen noodles, which take a bit longer to cook (5-7 minutes or so vs. 3 minutes for the fried kind) and are more expensive. Not using all of the soup packet that comes with the noodles can cut down a little bit on the fat, and a lot on the salt. (But then again...what's the point of instant ramen without that soup?) But the noodles themselves are the main nutritional culprit.
But, I add vegetables and stuff to my ramen! That makes it healthy!
Does having a small salad with a bag of potato chips make the combination automatically healthy?
But, it's warm and it's soup! That makes it healthy and homey and all that!
I've noticed that in the west, or in the U.S. anyway, there's this interesting correlation: hot food = 'nourishing', and cold (or rather, cooked and cold, un-reheated) food = 'sad'. (I have to fight against "cold food = sad" equation every time when trying to convince people that bento lunches are nourishing and satisfying and meant to be eaten cold, or at room temperature. (Note: there are other cultures have a bias against cold food in general too.)
But anyway, just because it's hot and soup-like, doesn't meant that ramen is good, nourishing food.
One day in March when I was in Japan, my mother got a sudden craving for instant cup ramen noodles. Ever since having major internal surgery in January, she's been having all kinds of odd cravings, for foods she hasn't been eating for ages. She hadn't had any cup noodles for years, since she's usually very much into fresh, real food. Anyway, I popped over to 7-11 and bought a selection of cup noodles (of which there are so many interesting kinds in Japan) and we had a little cup-noodle fest. The cup noodles were okay (though we both decided that the classic flavors were way better than the new-fangled ones like White Stew and Seafood Miso and so on) but afterwards, we both felt pretty queasy. Just like that feeling you get after ploughing through a bag of chips, but considerably worse.
This got me thinking about why we eat junk food like this, knowing we will feel bad afterwards. Do they really taste so good that they are worth the sick feeling later? Or is it some kind of addiction thing, to all that fat and salt or sugar mixed together?
One more footnote
Apparently some people lack the ability to read. Did I ever say that you should avoid eating instant ramen altogether? No I did not. I've said repeatedly that I eat instant ramen on occasion myself. And of course it's entirely up to you as to what you eat.
(Comments are now closed. I believe that every single point of view on the subject has been expressed by now. Don't bother emailing me about it either.)