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 cooking skills.
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.
"I haven't eaten Top Ramen in months," said Chris Bank, 24, a newly graduated software designer in San Francisco. "I used to live off that stuff, but I haven't thought to buy it recently. I think I might scrounge up some change and pick up a case."
After stocking up, Bank might consider searching for "instant noodles" the next time he's on the Internet. The Web offers sites devoted to clever recipes using instant noodles. Some of the more interesting include ramen pancakes, ramen chili, and cream cheese ramen. And many of the recipes don't incorporate the sodium-laden flavor packs.
Now that you know the facts about instant noodles, perhaps it's time to start worrying about that other staple food of your youth: macaroni and cheese.