There are few things more enjoyable in life than tucking into your favorite dish – whether that’s pizza, pasta or something a little healthier but still delicious. If your guilty pleasure is instant noodles, however, then you may need to consider cutting back. You see, scientists have looked at the effect that this particular food has on the body – and there may be shocking implications for your own health.
And if time constraints or mobility issues are problems, it may be tempting to reach for a packet of instant noodles rather than cook a meal from scratch. Instant noodles are often cheap, too, and you can even add your own touches – by throwing in a few extra veggies, for example.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that instant noodles are a very popular meal in several countries around the globe. Indeed, according to the World Instant Noodles Association, over 100 billion portions of the food were served in 2018, with China selling the most. The previous year, research firm Euromonitor found that the U.S. sold more than four billion packets of instant noodles, placing the nation just below the top five consumers of the foodstuff worldwide.
Yet fans of instant noodles may be alarmed to hear that they’re not really that good for you. Yes, scientific research has revealed that indulging in such a meal on a regular basis could have a detrimental effect on your long-term health – and there are some people who are at particular risk.
While the human body requires sustenance to survive, food is more than just fuel for a lot of people. Eating can bring pleasure, after all, as can cooking a tasty meal for loved ones to enjoy. And there’s plenty of varied cuisines out there to try either in a restaurant or at home.
Of all the many foods available to consumers today, however, noodles remain popular – perhaps in part because they can be prepared in several different ways. They can be boiled or pan-fried, for example, with each approach adding certain flavors to the dish.
And noodle dishes have long been a staple in Asia, with the Chinese Han dynasty making the foodstuff a core part of their diet. In fact, noodles have been around in China for thousands of years, as a fascinating discovery made in the country in 2005 proves.
That year, a group of archaeologists found an artifact in China holding some noodles that are said to be 4,000 years old. And it appears that Europeans also had their own doughy products throughout the centuries; the Roman poet Horace, who lived in the first century B.C., mentioned one such dish in his writing.
However, in the 20th century, one Japanese man changed the culinary landscape forever. You see, in the 1950s Momofuku Ando – an employee of the Nissin Foods company in his native country – came up with an interesting idea: to create the first batch of instant noodles.
These noodles, which were sold under the name “Chikin Ramen,” then hit shelves in 1958. And there were a couple of key benefits to these pre-prepared packets. As the noodles were dried, they would last for a longer period than their freshly made counterparts. They were quick to make, too, as they only needed to be boiled for a few minutes.
And such convenience led instant noodles to became one of Asia’s must-have food items. Then, at the start of the 1970s, Nissin Foods produced “Cup Noodles” – the very first ready meal of that type. Since that period, moreover, the demand for instant noodle dishes has only gone up.
Indeed, as previously noted, 2018 saw the sale of over 100 billion packs of instant noodle dishes, with China contributing considerably to that astonishing total. That year, the Chinese population ate around 40 billion portions of instant noodles, while other Asian nations such as Indonesia, Japan and India also sat within the top five consumers.
But despite the undoubted popularity of instant noodles, there have been some troubling developments in the last few years. Certain people within the scientific community have taken a closer look at the nutritional content of the quick-to-prepare food – and, worryingly, it turns out that they may be a potential health hazard.
“If we look at the composition of instant noodles, it becomes clear where the danger comes from,” an article on the website Healthy and Natural World has explained. “They are high in fat, high in salt [and] high in calories, and they’re processed.” Then, of course, some brands of instant noodles also contain an additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG).
And as anyone who pays attention to the additives in their food may know, MSG could cause problems with your health. In a report on the chemical that was published in the EXCLI Journal in March 2018, it was claimed even a small “dose” of MSG could lead to some concerning issues.
“Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of the most widely used food additives in commercial foods,” the paper explained. “Its application has increased over time, and it is found in many different ingredients and processed foods obtainable in every market or grocery store. MSG gives a special aroma to processed foods, which is known as umami in Japanese.”
But even though MSG is widespread, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that safe. The report continued, “Beside its flavor-enhancing effects, MSG has been associated with various forms of toxicity. MSG has been linked with obesity, metabolic disorders, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, neurotoxic effects and detrimental effects on the reproductive organs.”
Following that shocking revelation, the EXCLI Journal post then questioned if the authorities should ban MSG from food products. And the report also gave a detailed analysis of the additive’s effects on humans and animals – with the results being quite the eye-opener.
“MSG acts on the glutamate receptors and releases neurotransmitters,” the paper continued. “[These] play a vital role in normal physiological as well as pathological processes. All of these receptor types are present across the central nervous system. Results from both animal and human studies have demonstrated that administration of even the lowest dose of MSG has toxic effects.”
And apparently even just a small amount of MSG could cause problems. The EXCLI Journal post revealed, “The average intake of MSG per day is estimated to be 0.3 grams to 1 gram. These doses potentially disrupt neurons and might have adverse effects on behavior, [and] animal studies have demonstrated that neonatal MSG consumption sets a precedent for the development of obesity later on.”
The in-depth report then revealed a few more intriguing pieces of information on the effects of MSG before finally reaching a conclusion on the matter. And the paper’s summing up of the research may make for rather alarming reading, too.
“In conclusion, we would like to state that although MSG has proven its value as an enhancer of flavor, different studies have hinted at possible toxic effects related to this popular food additive,” the post went on. “These threats might have hitherto been underestimated. In the meantime, people keep using ever larger amounts of MSG [while] unaware of the possible consequences.”
The paper also made a suggestion to round things off, adding, “While MSG probably has huge benefits to the food industry, the ubiquitous use of this food additive could have negative consequences for public health. If more substantive evidence of MSG toxicity would be provided, a total ban on the use of MSG as a flavor enhancer would not be unwise to consider.”
That said, MSG isn’t the only potentially harmful substance in instant noodle dishes. You see, the product also contains a chemical preservative called tertiary-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ). And the inclusion of this preservative has sparked many debates in the past owing to the damage it can do to the human body.
Healthy and Natural World lifted the lid on some of the issues surrounding the preservative, explaining, “TBHQ… [extends] the shelf life of oily and fatty foods, so [it’s often] found in fast food. It’s also used in varnishes, cosmetics and perfumes.”
The website then dropped an even bigger revelation, adding, “TBHQ is highly toxic in bigger doses, but [it] has been allowed in the food industry in small doses. A number of studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high doses of TBHQ may be carcinogenic.”
But while such claims may give one cause for concern, Healthy and Natural World countered them with some other information. According to additional reports, TBHQ may actually stop people from getting cancer instead. Regardless of whether the additive helps or hinders the spread of the disease, though, the current safety guidelines behind the preservative’s use may also be a worry.
“Small doses of TBHQ have been approved for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” the Healthy and Natural World article continued. “The FDA has set the limit of up to 0.02 percent of the total oils in food to be TBHQ. If you consumed one gram of [it], this would very likely cause an adverse reaction – and five grams could be lethal.”
All in all, then, the piece added, “[While] nobody is really sure what the safe limit is… it doesn’t seem like a good idea to have TBHQ lingering in your gut.” And South Korean researchers also did some more digging on the subject, with their findings ultimately published in a paper for The Journal of Nutrition in 2014.
During their study, the scientists observed over 10,000 people in South Korea, noting the kind of diets that each had. Then, after compiling all of that information, experts then separated the individuals into two distinct groups.
“We identified two major dietary patterns with the use of principal components analysis,” the paper revealed. “The [first was a] ‘traditional dietary pattern’ (TP), [which is] rich in rice, fish, vegetables, fruit and potatoes. And the [second was a] ‘meat and fast-food pattern’ (MP), [which has] less rice intake but [is] rich in meat, soda, fried food and fast food – including instant noodles.”
And along the way, the scientists discovered a worrying link between instant noodles and a few medical conditions. The research appeared to find, too, that certain of these health issues apparently affected particular groups of people more than others.
The report continued, “The consumption of instant noodles two times a week was associated with a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women, but not in men. Consumption of instant noodles once per week was also associated with a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women, but not in men.”
After assessing those results, the scientists tried to double-check their validity by taking an even closer look. The paper added, “Further adjustment by sodium intake, estrogen use, menopause or waist circumference also did not change the positive relation between instant noodle intake two times a week and metabolic syndrome in women.”
And that’s by far the only study on the effects of consuming instant noodles. In 2013 it was revealed that Dr. Braden Kuo had headed an investigation into how the human body digests instant noodles. By using a small camera called the “smart pill,” he could observe the process via a computer screen at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Thanks to the smart pill, then, Dr. Kuo saw that the instant noodles weren’t digesting at a normal rate. Indeed, the strips of dough appeared to continue to sit in the stomach some two hours after their initial consumption – and they were mostly intact, too.
“People just have this macabre interest in terms of what’s going on in their bodies when they can’t see it,” Dr. Kuo told WCVB-TV in 2013. “What we’re seeing here is a stomach contracting back and forth as it’s trying to grind up the [instant] noodles.” The physician’s experiment also saw the person eat a batch of fresh noodles, so he could make a comparison.
And the results were utterly fascinating, as Dr. Kuo described. He said, “The most striking thing about our experiment… [is] when you look at a time interval of one hour or two hours, you notice that the processed noodles were less broken down than the homemade noodles.”
It should be noted, though, that no firm conclusions could be reached from the study owing to its small sample size. Furthermore, although the instant noodles took longer to digest than fresh ones, Dr. Kuo didn’t know if that in itself had an overall negative effect on the human body.
But Dr. Kuo’s experiment has certainly earned its fair share of attention, with the WCVB-TV report on his findings having chalked up more than 15 million views on YouTube since it was uploaded back in June 2013. And thanks to his work and those of other researchers, it now seems that instant noodles are best avoided if you want to look after your health.