Solving the mysteries of instant noodles.
Feb. 21, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Momofuku Ando probably didn't get many
votes when Time Magazine chose its Person of the Century -- even though
he invented one of the most influential foods of the past 100 years. No, he
didn't clone sheep or genetically engineer a super tomato. His contribution to
the modern diet? Instant noodles.
Introduced to America in 1970 by Ando's company Nissan Foods, the packs of
brick-like curlicues morph into long, rubbery noodles in a salty soup base in
just five minutes. Add to this simplicity the economical price (as low as 12
packs for a dollar) and it's no surprise that this fast-food "delicacy"
is a preferred choice for college students strapped for cash or short on
These monuments to expedience, marketed under such brand names as Top Ramen
(ramen means "noodle" in Japanese), Oodles of Noodles, and
Cup-a-Soup, have provided vital sustenance during many a stressful late-night
cram session. Filling, yes. But are they good for you?
"The noodles themselves are pretty harmless," said Ron Konzak,
author of The Book of Ramen. (Yes, someone actually wrote a book about
ramen. There are web sites devoted to the topic, too.) "Usually it's the
MSG in the flavor packets that can harm people on low sodium [diets] or [who
are] allergic to the stuff."
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a "flavor enhancer" used to improve
the taste of sweet, salty, bitter, or sour foods. Supposedly, it has a pleasant
flavor of its own. Instant noodle makers use it to make their shrimp flavors
"shrimpier" and beef flavors "beefier." (No one is certain what
it does to the "oriental" flavors.)
According to Stephanie Brooks, a San Francisco Bay Area dietitian, MSG
triggers an allergic reaction in 1 to 2% of the population. "People
allergic to MSG can get burning sensations, chest and facial flushing, or pain
and headaches from it," Brooks said.
Even those who don't suffer from those symptoms should be careful not to
overdo it when it comes to the noodles, or at least the flavor packs, which
Brooks says are also high in sodium. A sampling of the three main brands of
instant noodles revealed sodium amounts of 687 to 830 milligrams per serving.
(That's 28 to 34% of the recommended daily value for a person consuming a
2,000-calorie-a-day diet.) On top of that, each serving contains between 7 and
11 grams of total fat (11 to 17% of the recommended daily value).
Brooks warns that those suffering from high blood pressure, taking diuretics
or certain antidepressant medications (MAO inhibitors), or suffering from
congestive heart failure should avoid the high sodium and MSG content supplied
by instant noodles.
Of course, most of the young adults who have propelled these low-cost
rations to best-selling snack status are free of circulatory problems and
blissfully oblivious of the bodily harm they're causing. Luckily, most of them
outgrow the product after either learning how to cook real food or earning
enough money to move on to healthier fare.