Should backpackers be wary of ramen noodles?
By Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD
Updated May 18, 2022
This post may contain affiliate links.
History of instant ramen noodles
Did you know?
- Ramen is a Japanese adaptation of Chinese wheat noodles believed to be introduced to Japan in 1859.
- However, instant ramen noodles were not invented until 1958 by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder of Nissin Foods, the producer of what is now Top Ramen.
- According to a Japanese poll in 2000, it is believed that instant ramen was their greatest invention of the twentieth century.
- As of 2018, 103 billion servings of instant noodles are consumed annually worldwide!
Why are instant ramen noodles considered to be so unhealthy?
The obvious answer to that is the presence of saturated fat, sodium, preservatives, and artificial flavorings. Although there’s more to the story…
This is a controversial topic when it comes to instant ramen noodles. Research has clearly determined that saturated fat intake increases the risk of elevated lipid profiles. Elevated cholesterol can then increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Palm oil, a saturated fat, is the primary source of fat used to flash fry the noodles, extending their shelf life. Palm oil, however, does not behave like a typical saturated fat because it’s comprised of 50% unsaturated fats, healthy fats. Therefore, researchers have had difficulty determining if palm oil truly puts consumers at risk of increased cardiovascular disease.
One research study in Korea determined that women who consume more than 2 servings of instant ramen noodles daily are at increased risk of heart disease.
If you believe in protecting our environment, the use of palm oil might be concerning for completely different reasons. Deforestation is a topic for another day.
Instant ramen noodles are laden with sodium (salt) which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in some. However, if the spice packet is discarded, the amount of sodium ingested is significantly less. I don’t know about you, but I automatically throw spice packets in the garbage. A variety of other ingredients (e.g., cheese, herbs, nuts) can be added to boost the flavor and nutrition profile of the noodles. Our garlic parmesan ramen recipe is an excellent example of this, but don’t go there just yet!
Flavor Enhancers & Preservatives
Like many processed foods, instant ramen noodles contain ingredients like monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer, and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a preservative. Studies claim that these ingredients can be harmful to your health but to what degree is yet to be determined. A video produced by Dr. Braden Kuo of Massachusetts General Hospital shows how difficult ramen noodles are to digest. Despite the video results, Dr. Kuo states that his findings have not deterred him from continuing to consume instant noodles.
Now, wait just a minute!
If there are health risks associated with instant noodles, why are 103 billion servings of instant noodles consumed annually?
The answer to that is relatively easy…
Instant noodles are inexpensive, shelf-stable, easy to prepare, and, let’s face it…they taste good.
Should backpackers stop including ramen noodles in their meal plans?
The answer to this is personal, but as a registered dietitian and backpacker, instant ramen noodles will continue to be included in my backpacking diet. Here’s why:
- The nutrition profile and ingredients list (not including the spice packet) is less concerning when compared to other frequently consumed backpacking foods. Next time you’re at the grocery store, read the list of ingredients for pop-tarts and glazed honey buns.
- Your intake of instant ramen noodles is likely not going to meet or exceed the amount (2 servings daily) considered to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- The remainder of your diet likely includes the nutrients missing in instant noodles, making deficiencies less of a concern.
- Discarding the spice packet reduces the intake of questionable ingredients with more nutritious ingredients (i.e., dehydrated vegetables, cheese, nuts) added by yourself.
- Whole wheat air-dried noodles without flavorings or preservatives can be purchased at many Asian markets for a slightly higher price.
- Instant noodles made with rice, millet, or organic buckwheat can be purchased as healthier alternatives.
- Higher protein noodles and microwave dried noodles might even be made available in the future.
Disclaimer: This is general nutrition advice, and you should talk with your physician before implementing any dietary or lifestyle changes. Always check nutrition labels and ingredient lists to ensure food items will work for you.
If you’re still a fan of instant ramen noodles, enjoy this Backcountry Foodie fan favorite.
Check out the video below for a meal prep demo, including time and money-saving tips.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD, is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with over 20 years of nutrition and backpacking experience. She’s also the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie, an online ultralight recipes and meal planning platform for backpackers. She also enjoys teaching hikers about backpacking nutrition via virtual masterclasses, YouTube videos, and podcast episodes. You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.
Good stuff here! If I am not mistaken a single package of instant ramen is considered 2 servings. (although for a hungry backpacker might seem like less!)
Meaning that would be the maximum recommended intake in a 24 period?