The Rise Of Ramen (And How To Make It Good For You)

They're loaded with sodium, can't break down in the body, and elevate the risk of heart disease——just how bad are ramen noodles? And how can you make them better?

February 5, 2018
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A staple of dorm rooms around the world, ramen noodles remain the go-to food of choice for those living on tight budgets. In fact, ask any college student if they eat prepackaged ramen and they’ll likely skip right to their favorite flavors. Why so popular? You can pick up a week’s worth of meals for a few measly dollars.

On top of their affordability, the noodle bricks are good for those with limited access to kitchens. See, you only need to add one ingredient to ramen: hot water. This makes ramen noodles accessible to those with the most limited of cooking resources.

But as of late, the ramen tide is shifting. Upscale versions of ramen dishes have soared their way into restaurants, ranging from small pop-ups to five-star dining experiences. According to Fast Company, New York and Los Angeles are “saturated with gourmet ramen shops,” and their ramen supplier, Sun Noodle, produces about 90,000 servings of ramen per day.

Chefs at Ippudo, a ramen restaurant in New York (Robert Wright/The New York Times)

This uptick in gourmet ramen consumption is due to restaurant owners following a longstanding Japanese marketing strategy, according to the Fast Company piece: Restaurateurs manufactured a food craze by using the media to their advantage and securing coverage on food blogs.

Now, with ramen noodles consumed by anyone from wallet-conscious students to gourmet diners, enthusiasts of this food should familiarize themselves with its (lack of) nutritional value.

Serving up Sodium

This might surprise you, but a package of ramen noodles’ serving size is only half a block. This means you ingest about 830-850 milligrams of sodium per serving—twice that if you eat the entire package.

 

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. “To do the math, by consuming one pack of ramen, you are consuming 72-73 percent of your daily sodium allowance,” says Jennifer Kanikula, a registered dietitian and blogger at The SoFull Traveler.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that your body does need sodium to function properly, but too much of it is bad for your health. Sodium can increase blood pressure and boost your risk for stroke and heart disease.

 

Even children are not immune to sodium issues. Almost nine out of 10 children eat more sodium than recommended, and one in nine has elevated blood pressure.

Ramen Research

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that eating instant noodles is linked to heart risk, especially in women. Researchers in South Korea (a country with a high consumption rate of instant noodles) used 10,700 participants (54.5 percent women) ranging in age from 19 to 64.

They assessed the people’s diets using a 63-item food-frequency questionnaire and identified two major dietary patterns: a traditional dietary pattern that was rich in rice, fish, vegetables, fruit, and potatoes, and a meat- and fast-food dietary pattern that had less rice intake but was rich in meat, soda, and fast food, including instant noodles.

 

Researchers found that those who followed the second dietary pattern had a higher prevalence of abdominal obesity. Further, the women who ate instant noodles at least twice a week had higher incidence of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome includes health risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, and high cholesterol—basically anything that can increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It did not even matter what type of dietary pattern they followed—sixty eight percent off women who ate ramen twice or more per week had metabolic syndrome.

In a study conducted by Stefani Bardin, a teacher at Parsons School of Design, and Braden Kuo, MD, director of the gastrointestinal motility laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard University, it was found that instant ramen is difficult to digest.

In their study, Bardin and Kuo asked two volunteers to eat different meals: One had a meal of processed food, instant ramen being the main course, and the other ate a meal consisting of handmade noodles. After eating, the participants swallowed tiny camera capsules that recorded the inside of their gastrointestinal tracts. Results showed significant differences in the processes; the instant ramen did not break down into the tiny matter necessary for proper digestion, and the other meal did.

Although this is not positive news, ramen noodle lovers do not need to fret. According to an article published in The New York Times, you can still eat instant noodles, just in moderation. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University, said in the article, “Once or twice a month is not a problem. But a few times a week really is.”

Instant comfort?

Under duress, people often turn to eating ramen noodles as a way to make themselves feel better. Stressed college women are likely to experience an increased appetite and propensity to consume unhealthy foods, according to a study in Nutrition Research.

It’s not just women who indulge in comfort eating, either—a study in Physiology & Behavior shows that while women are more likely to increase food consumption while stressed, stressed women and men increase their intakes of unhealthy (particularly fatty) foods.

In terms of ramen, it seems men may be more likely to eat it when stressed: Men more often report seeking out “hearty, meal-related comfort foods,” whereas women often prefer “snack-related” comfort foods like chocolate and ice cream.

But research indicates stress eating is a short-lived, and short-sighted, stress solution. While “comfort eaters may experience reduced perceived stress compared to those who do not engage in this behavior,” per research in the journal Appetite, another study shows that combining food with stress “promotes the compulsive nature of overeating.” The mood-improving effects of tasty (as opposed to “unpalatable”) chocolate only last for three minutes, a third study finds.

In a sense, people use food they enjoy as a form of self-medication when they experience bad days. Ramen noodles, for some, is that medication. And when you pair those noodles with healthy trimmings, it can become a wiser choice than a piece of chocolate cake.

How to Make It Healthier

If you limit the amount of noodles to keep the sodium down but beef up the dish with healthy options, you can create a hearty, tasty meal fit for one—or your entire family.

Here are a few options:

Add in protein.

“The best way to up the health factor of ramen dishes is to choose lean protein sources to go with it,” says Emily Braaten, a registered dietitian. She notes that numerous restaurant entrees feature fatty meats. “These kinds of protein make the dishes richer, but also are high in saturated fat.” She says instead, when cooking at home, you can add shredded chicken (or other lean meats) and a soft- or hard-boiled egg.

Ditch the flavor pack and augment the dish with your own savory seasonings.

“Add more flavor with herbs and less sodium,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Rebecca Scritchfield. “Try steeping fresh mint and cilantro in the hot broth and use your own salt plus red pepper flakes for spice instead of [using] the instant sodium packets.”

Mix in your favorite vegetables.

Any veggies you have in your refrigerator or freezer will work, says Scritchfield. “Or leftover roasted veggies can be added to ramen to make it more colorful and more balanced.”

Women should consume 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. Carbohydrate equivalents: One cup of fresh cooked, no-salt-added broccoli and spinach = 11 grams. One cup of frozen spinach = 8 grams. One cup of yellow and white canned corn = 30 grams.

Give soba a try.

Rather than cook with high-sodium ramen noodles, try switching to soba noodles, a healthier alternative.

“Soba is actually made of buckwheat, which contains no wheat or gluten,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, a registered dietitian. “Buckwheat has much more protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals than wheat noodles—13 grams of protein per 100 grams, 10 grams of fiber per 100 grams, and 57 percent of the daily value of magnesium.”

Bonus: soba noodles have a “nuttier taste and are not as bland as the regular wheat noodles.” She does note that you will still consume a lot of starch, but, she emphasizes, it is healthier starch.

Cook Like a Ramen Master

So, you’ve decided you can’t give up your ramen noodles. That is no problem—up your ramen prowess and cook healthier versions of the dish by simply following the sage cooking advice of celebrated chef Tracy Chang, a ramen noodles master. Her award-winning Guchi’s Midnight Ramen dish, available at her restaurant PAGU, won Best Ramen by Boston Magazine.

Chang (Paige Ninivaggi/Boston Herald)

Here are Chang’s ramen cooking tips:

  • You can amplify the flavor of the dish by adding in dried shiitake mushrooms. This vegetable has vitamins D, B, and C. It also contains essential minerals like zinc, iron, and potassium.
  • For protein, dried seafood contains calcium, iron, and omega 3s for skin and hair.
  • When making your own stock, you should cook the bones at a boil, and then at a simmer. You can choose either a pork or chicken bone, depending on your taste preference. Doing this releases essential minerals from the marrow and bone.
  • Adding gelatin helps boost the immune system. “Gelatin comes from the skin and fat (for example, chicken backs, chicken feet and pork belly),” she says.

The Final Slurp

Ramen noodles do contain excessive amounts of sodium, and too much of it can lead to significant health issues in the future. However, if you simply limit the noodles and amplify your dish with tasty vegetables, lean proteins, and bone broth, you can satisfy your noodle love while still getting the necessary nutrients to keep you focused and strong.

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