Should backpackers be wary of ramen noodles?
You can skip to the recipe but stick with me for just a bit to learn about the health risks associated with instant ramen noodles. Should you be wary?
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.
* Instant ramen noodles, however, were not invented until 1958 by Momofuku Ando, the Tawainese-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 did determine that women that 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 the spice packet immediately goes in the garbage. A variety of other ingredients (i.e. cheese, herbs, nuts) are 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 results of the video, 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 a personal one but as a registered dietitian and backpacker, instant ramen noodles will continue to be included in my backpacking diet and 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.
* In the future, higher protein noodles and microwave dried noodles might even be made available.
If you’re still a fan of instant ramen noodles, here’s one of our favorite recipes.
Garlic Parmesan Ramen
- 1 package instant ramen noodles (85 g)
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (30 g)
- 1 Tbsp dried parsley (1 g)
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder (0.8 g)
- 1/4 tsp black pepper (0.5 g)
- 1/8 tsp table salt (0.8 g)
- 3 Tbsp olive oil (40 g)
- Discard ramen noodle spice packet.
- Put noodles in a bag or container to be used in the backcountry.
- Put the remaining ingredients in a second bag or container to be stored inside the noodle bag or container.
- Pack 3 Tbsp (40 g) of olive oil, per serving, in a leakproof container to be added when the meal is consumed. Recommend double bagging the oil in the event there is a leak.
- Remove the parmesan herb packet.
- Add 8 oz (240 mL) hot/cold water or enough to cover the noodles.
- Let stand to allow noodles to rehydrate. Avoid over-soaking as noodles will become mushy.
- Consume or properly discard the noodle broth to practice the Leave No Trace principle.
- Add parmesan herb packet and 3 Tbsp (40 g) olive oil to the noodles.
- Stir to mix well and enjoy!
For a meal prep demo including time and money-saving tips, check out the video below.
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New to our blog?
Here are a few posts that you might find interesting…
- Backpacking Meal Plans: Not all are created equal
- Backpacking Nutrition: Fueling Farther Using the Goldilocks Approach
- Top 4 Reasons to Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Meals
- Carbohydrates and DIY Backpacking Meals
- Protein, Fat, and DIY Backpacking Meals
- How to Choose Snacks for Your Hiking Adventures
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 make sure food items will work for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, LD is the founder of Ultralight Meal Planning for Outdoor Explorers and owner of Backcountry Foodie™. Aaron is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with a passion for food. She spends much of her time experimenting with new ultralight recipes in her kitchen and later trail tests them to ensure that they meet backcountry adventurers’ needs. You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and in the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.