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Are instant noodles all that bad?

Dr Chee Huei Phing   Assistant Professor & Clinical Dietitian, Faculty of Science, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman

Do you know that instant noodles were first created by a Taiwanese-Japanese inventor? They have come a long way since then, as instant noodles have become a popular meal option due to their convenience and low cost. They are practically a staple for college and university students!

Although instant noodles are commonly consumed at home, they have also become a popular alternative to the more conventional mee in mee dishes (fried or soup), especially at Mamak restaurants.  

Oodles of noodles!

According to the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysians consumed as many as 870 million packets of instant noodles in 2004, but the amount ballooned to more than 1,210 million packets by 2008, with an increment of approximately 40% over the duration of 4 years.

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The whole caboodle

Instant noodles are dried pre-cooked noodle blocks, with flavouring powder, seasoning oil, and sometimes garnishing available in separate packets.

The main ingredients used in instant noodles are wheat flour, palm oil and salt. Common ingredients in the flavouring powder are monosodium glutamate (MSG), seasoning, salt and sugar.

Instant noodles are marketed globally under various brand names, which come in 3 fundamental types:

  • Packet noodles lend themselves to modifications, with vegetables or proteins such as eggs easily added.
  • Cups and bowls are more convenient; yet more expensive than packet noodles. They are cooked in boiled water.

Instant noodles have always been the focus of much speculation. They are considered unhealthy mainly due to the following reasons:

High in sodium:

The Malaysian Dietitians’ Association suggests that individuals consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (equivalent to 6 g of salt or a teaspoon of salt), and that certain individuals (with high blood pressure) limit their intake to 1,500 mg per day. CAP found that the average amount of sodium in instant noodles was 830 mg. Hence, consumption of instant noodles can easily lead to excessive sodium intake, especially when one also consumes other processed food, meat and shellfish. An increased long term intake of sodium is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease or even kidney failure.

High in fat:

Instant noodles are high in fat, especially saturated fat. The raw noodles are deep fried in oil to eliminate the moisture and improve shelf life. Hence, deep fried instant noodles are higher in fat than fresh or air/oven dried noodles. Significantly less oil is used with the air-drying technology to deliver the ‘fried’ taste instead of the usual deep frying process.

Wax in instant noodles?

There have been rumours circulating about the wax coating of instant noodles. Contrary to popular belief, instant noodles contain palm oil rather than wax to prevent the noodles from clumping together. Wax is less likely to solve the issue anyway as wax melts at lower temperatures.

Low nutritive value:

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Instant noodles are high in sodium and fat, but low in fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Preservatives, additives and flavourings:

MSG and tertiary-butyl-hydroquinone (TBHQ) have been claimed as chemical preservatives derived from petroleum. They may be present in instant noodles to enhance taste and act as a preservative. The Food and Drug Administration has categorised MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognised as safe”. However, its use stays controversial. Regular consumption may cause severe health issues even though dietary intake of these preservatives is allowed within a limit. According to the Codex Standards (FAO standards) for instant noodles, flavour enhancers, acid regulators, thickeners, colours, stabilisers, emulsifiers, antioxidants and preservatives are allowed to be added in the making of instant noodles.

Another health concern is the reported leaching of dioxin from the plastic container of the cup noodle. Harmful substances could seep into the broth as hot water is added. Furthermore, instant noodle may produce oxidised oil and fat if the cooking oil is not maintained at the proper temperature, or the oil is not changed as frequent as necessary during manufacturing.

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We can make a few modifications to our instant noodle dishes to overcome the above-mentioned disadvantages of consuming instant noodles:

  • Most of the sodium is in the seasoning. Hence, the simplest way to reduce the sodium intake is to use only part of the flavouring sachet content, or to substitute with natural spices such as sesame oil, mint, coriander leaves, basil, lime or sliced spring onions. In addition, you may cut down the sodium intake by simply not drinking the broth.
  • Add an egg – add a hard-boiled egg or crack a raw egg into the noodles when they turn soft, as a source of protein.
  • Furthermore, cabbage or dark green leafy vegetables like spinach can be stirred into the noodles right before serving to make it a complete meal.

In conclusion, consumption of processed food should be restricted to occasional treats. Overindulgence does not do one any good. The rule of thumb for healthy eating is balanced, moderate and variety. Talk to your dietitian if you need help for your diet plan!

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