An Ode to Instant Noodles

And how bad for you are they…really?

Some of my fondest memories growing up involve instant noodles. I used to go to my dad’s office after Chinese language school and eat a lunch of instant noodles in his office pantry. And when our house got renovated and our kitchen access was limited, we ate instant noodles on the window ledge of my grandmother’s bedroom.

Instant noodles have made frequent appearances in my life as a quick lunch, a hearty breakfast, and as a travelling (read: adventure) food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to cook all sorts of fancier, healthier stuff, but I still love making and eating instant noodles. In fact, I eat instant noodles several times a week and I’m still not bored of them.

But instant noodles don’t have a perfect reputation. They’re seen as unhealthy fast food by a lot of people or the food of poor people. Yet, I can’t help but love instant noodles.

Why Instant Noodles Are Awesome

According to the World Instant Noodles Association (yes, this is a thing), instant noodles were invented in 1958 by Momofuko Ando. Ando invented the process of flash-frying noodles to dehydrate them after steaming and seasoning. The first instant noodle product was called “Chikin Ramen.” Seasoning packets would be invented later, and Cup Noodles — which come in a Styrofoam cup you can add water to and eat from directly — came to market in 1971.

When instant noodles first hit the market, they were called “magic noodles.” Decades later, they’re still pretty magical to me.

Instant Noodle Awesome Fact #1: They’re instant!

This is the most obvious benefit of instant noodles, and I’m not just talking about Styrofoam-cup noodles with nothing but seasoning. With enough practice, I’ve perfected a routine that gets me from hungry to eating delicious noodles with hearty toppings in under ten minutes.

Boil water while you chop veggies. Dump everything in when the water’s boiled and crack an egg into the mix. The time it takes an egg to poach to perfection takes roughly around the same time as noodles and choy take to cook, so once the egg is done, your noodles are pretty much done too.

Instant Noodle Awesome Fact #2: They’re versatile

There are so many types of instant noodle these days; it’s no longer a Japanese phenomenon. There are Korean instant noodles, Filipino instant noodles, and instant noodles that aren’t yellow and stringy — for example, I love Chinese mi xian instant rice noodles, which aren’t deep-fried (I don’t think so at least) but are just as tasty.

A typical quick lunch at the Charmaine household: instant noodles, fried egg, luncheon meat, bok choy, mushrooms. (Photo provided by author)

Instant Noodle Awesome Fact #3: They’re effin’ tasty

Instant noodles already taste delicious on their own (who doesn’t love salty goodness?), but you can add so much to your instant noodles and have them taste even better.

If it’s ramen, poach an egg with your noodles or add some char siu. If you’re feeling Chinese food, add wontons. If you’re feeling Korean food, add kimchi. Other good stuff to add no matter the cultural origin of your noodles: green onion, mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, choy, bean sprouts…the list goes on and on!

But instant noodles are SO unhealthy!

Are they? Because if instant noodles give people cancer, I’m likely to die an early death, my blood thick with sodium.

I’m no physician, so take my thoughts with a grain of MSG, but I think instant noodles get a worse rap than they deserve. Here are some interesting health findings about instant noodles:

Do instant noodles cause cancer?

A reporter at Vice asked this exact question to a nutritionist who basically said yes and no. Because while instant noodles themselves don’t directly cause cancer, any processed food that contains lots of preservatives and sodium can activate cancer cells. I corroborated this claim with Healthline, which echoed that excessive sodium intake heightens cancer risk. Some people are also more sensitive sodium than others.

So, sodium-rich instant noodles can be a real concern for people with diabetes or high blood pressure, Vice goes on to say. But for healthy people, it sounds like as long as you don’t gorge yourself on instant noodles (or chicken nuggets, or chips) all the time, you’ll be fine.

Is MSG really bad for you?

Many instant noodle products contain tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ, a preservative that extends shelf life) and the infamous monosodium glutamate (MSG).

According to Healthline, TBHQ is safe in small amounts. Yet some animal studies have discovered that chronic exposure may lead to neurological damage and an increased risk for lymphoma and liver enlargement. Other studies have found it can damage DNA or cause vision problems in some people

As for MSG, some people are more sensitive to it than others. Sensitive people may experience nausea, headaches, weakness, flushing, high blood pressure, and muscle tightness.

So, if you’re sensitive to these ingredients, it’s best you avoid instant noodles. But if instant noodles don’t make you sick, it again sounds like moderation is key.

Are instant noodles empty calories?

Honestly, this seems to be the biggest problem with instant noodles. They can be high-calorie and chock-full of preservatives and lack healthful nutrients. So, you’re essentially eating “empty” calories and feeling full without getting any goodness out of your meal.

But there’s a simple way to improve this situation: add toppings!

Photo by Matt & Chris Pua on Unsplash

Instant Noodle Harm Reduction

So, it seems that while instant noodles aren’t evil, they definitely aren’t as good for you as a cup of steamed spinach.

Nevertheless, I love my instant noodles. And if you’ve gotten this far in reading this article, you probably love instant noodles too. Taking into account the health facts we just learned, here are some “harm reduction” tips:

  • Dilute your seasoning packet with lots of water, or only use half the packet.
  • Add lots of veggies and protein to your noodles. I like adding choy (bok choy and gai lan are both tasty additions that are readily available in most Asian markets). I also like poaching an egg into my noodles.
  • Don’t drink all the soup; use it like a sauce.

There are also some newer products out there that are kind of instant-noodle-adjacent. For example, Sun Noodle (no spon!) makes tasty frozen packages of fresh noodles and real (liquid) soup bases. Since they’re frozen, not flash-fried, I assume there are fewer preservatives in these products. They’re not as cheap as instant noodles — and they may be harder to find in places without a big Asian consumer base — but they have a more authentic, restaurant-like texture that’s closer to the real thing.

Finally, like anything that feels good but is technically bad for you (junk food, weed, loud concerts, etc.): eat noodles in moderation, and eat a variety of noodles. This keeps you from getting bored, and I find that when you make noodles a treat, they taste even better! Instant noodles are just one of many fantastic foods, and with a little planning, I believe you can have your instant noodles and eat ’em too :)

Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no Medium subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free: https://bit.ly/2MleRqJ

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