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Global Health Threats: Instant Noodles

By Roberta Attanasio

Instant noodles: convenient, cheap, maybe tasty, and bad for your health.

Invented by Momofuku Ando after World War II to provide food for the masses, they became popular around the world in a relatively short time. However, back in 1991, tests carried out by the Australian Consumers’ Association showed that a single serving of noodles contained the same amount of fat present in a cup of potato chips. What else? Carbohydrates, chemicals and salt — lots of chemicals and salt.

The global demand for instant noodles is expanding, especially in Asian countries. Now, results from a study published in the Journal of Nutrition (Instant Noodle Intake and Dietary Patterns Are Associated with Distinct Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Korea) shows that significant consumption of instant noodles — including ramen — may increase the risk for metabolic syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic, metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing the risk of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Photo Credit: kattebelletje; Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The study focused primarily on the Asian country with the highest  number of instant noodle consumers in the world — South Korea.  In recent years, South Koreans have experienced a rapid increase in health problems, specifically heart disease, and a growing number of overweight adults. Hyun Joon Shin, lead investigator of the study, said in a press release that he decided to uncover distinct connections between instant noodle consumption and metabolic syndrome — connections that  had not been widely studied. He found that eating instant noodles two or more times a week was associated with metabolic syndrome, especially in women. He said that the gender gap can likely be attributed to biological differences (such as sex hormones and metabolism) between the sexes, as well as obesity and metabolic syndrome components. In addition, men and women’s varied eating habits and differences in the accuracy of food reporting may play a role in the gender gap.

Another potential factor in the gender difference is a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), which is an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics and is present in the noodle containers. BPA is a well-known endocrine disruptor, and interferes with the way estrogen and other hormones send messages through the body.

Regardless of the gender-related findings or their causes, Shin said that the study highlights  the importance of understanding the foods we feed our bodies. “This research is significant since many people are consuming instant noodles without knowing possible health risks,” he said. “My hope is that this study can lay a foundation for future research about the health effects of instant noodle consumption.” Shin added that the study’s health implications could be substantial — particularly if it leads to people choosing healthier foods.

As Linda Poon said last January on NPR, ramen noodles are a staple for college students. “And it’s not just college students who turn to the noodles in lean moments: When your food budget is reduced to quarters dug out of the couch, or when hunger pangs strike at ungodly hours, ramen noodles may come to the rescue.” 

She adds: “But while you can get a quick fix of salt and carbs by tossing the block of dried noodles and seasoning into the microwave, you won’t be getting much in the way of nutrition.”

We could update her statement by saying that, however, you will be getting much in the way of bad health.


    • Roberta Attanasio

      Yes, you’re right, although I didn’t know about it. Your comment made me think about a new study on MSG we can do using the 3T3-L1 in vitro model. We have recently used this model to show that 2-naphtol (a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) contributes to adipocyte differentiation.

      • Ray Kinney

        Yes, interesting. And:
        In 1957, Archives of Ophthalmology, (Lucas,Newhouse)fed MSG to newborn mice yielding damaged retinal neurons.
        Large amounts of MSG were added to baby foods (and adult foods as a ‘flavor enhancer’)in comparable doses to the Lucas mice.
        In ’69, Olney J. (Dept. psych @ Washington U St. Louis)repeated Lucas work yielding newborn mice that were grossly obese, w/ hypoplastic organs. This lead to pituitary, thyroid, adrenal problems, and they had reproductive problems. Brain biopsy showed lesions of arcuate nucleus.
        Recent work shows MSG damage to hypothalamus, hippocampus, circumventricular organs, locus ceruleus, amygdala, limbic system, subthalamus, and striatum.
        NMDA and similar receptors are affected, to increase calcium cascade and overexcitation of neuronal firing which exhausts and often kills neurons. All of this is thought to be enabled by damaged blood brain barrier and/or damaged circumventricular organs yielding abnormal glutamate entry to CNS.
        Body burden lead levels can potentiate glutamate pathogenic effects (e.g. lipid peroxidation of bbb, reduced glutathione, and reduced GABA, etc. When inhibitory neurotransmitters are themselves inhibited, the excititory neurotransmitters such as glutamate can remain for longer time at the synapse causing toxic effect and excititory excess of the neuron.
        The ability of MSG to cause overexcitation of tastebuds is exploited by the food industry to play into a massive food additive increase of MSG content as a competitive edge. More and more MSG is added to foods, yet can remain hidden from the label by allowing up to 60% of each ingredient to be added MSG before triggering it as MSG on the label. Each manufacturer tries to secretely add more MSG than competitors,,, because of the food flavor-enhancing properties of the MSG.There appears to be no ceiling on the amounts that can be packed into foods…. and little accounting on the label. IMHO this is a massive potential problem that can be pathogenic, as Blaylock and others have trying to clarify for many years. The food industry is so powerful that little changes. Is obesity partially a result of MSG effects? Are many neurotoxicity diseases exacerbated by MSG? Are instant noodles loaded with MSG? How many other processed foods loaded to the gills with MSG, and how serious is it that this is not adequately clarified? Just sayin. IMHO

    • Roberta Attanasio

      Glad to see you here, Ray! What you’re proposing is most likely unfeasible in the current research funding climate. It would be too expensive – human studies are costly, and there is no way to convince experimental animals to eat instant noodles…..

      • Ray Kinney

        Yes, but there is already a lot of research lit on MSG neuorotoxic effects, so just quantifying content within various foods including instant noodles would be a good start, cost very little comparatively, and be quite enlightening… given the vagaries of labeling of food content of MSG. All it would take initially would be one relatively wealthy individual that might be curious enough about their food intake in relationship to their health decline to decide to hire a very good lab to find out. There must be scores of such potential funders out there that could find out, and then spark followup interest.ALS, Parkinson’s,and other similar neuropathologies have very significant investigatory funding currently that could probably enable some quantification and assessment.Anyway.. just saying.IMHO

        • Ray Kinney

          Hi Roberta, I can’t resist adding that ALS is a nasty disease that has a lot of affected people scrambling to avoid eating, or being otherwise exposed to, chemicals that could possibly be adding to the problem of excess glutamate at the synapse and subsequent neuron fatigue and even motor neuron death. There is a lot of funding looking at contributing factors such as the effects of lead exposure reducing GABA. GABA has a inhibitory role on excess glutamate at the synapse, but if lead reduces GABA signficantly, GABA can not clear the glutamate away quickly enough to help it be stored for reuse in the astrocytes.So, if MSG intake can have any effect on the NMDA system and glutamate at the synapse it gives reason for a lot of ALS patients to avoid food that just might possibly be elevated in glutamate or lead.It could be literally a matter of life or death to them. Some of them are probably eating a lot of instant noodles and other potentially high MSG foods. The Precautionary Principle might be advised for them until more research can clarify if these foods are really safe for them. IMHO

          • Roberta Attanasio

            Can dietary glutamate (MSG) affect neurons? How does it get to the neurons? If it does, then people with ALS should definitely avoid it (not only a precautionary measure, but also a common sense one).

        • Roberta Attanasio

          Well, my first comment (August 22) was meant to be ironic…. so said, I do think the neurotoxic effects of MSG contained in food, as you say, should be studied – I’m not familiar with what has been done until now about the neurotoxicity of food/MSG, although I’m aware of studies that show MSG intake is associated with sleep-disordered breathing.

          • Ray Kinney

            Yu, 2011, induced excitotoxic brain injury in mice in order to investigate mitigative possibilities of the neuropathology. They did this by placing MSG in the gut.
            other researchers have established blood glutamate increases through ingestion.
            Once blood glutamate is increased, depending on the functional status of the blood brain barrier, excess glutamate can enter the brain. Many mechanisms have been documented for degradations of BBB integrity,(eg.membrane lipid peroxidation via contact with toxic metals such as Pb). When the bbb becomes more porous, it can allow many chemicals entry to the brain that are not allowed normally.
            This may be one of the reasons that Lead, BMAA, MSG, Aspartate, etc are being looked at more closely as being associated with many neuordiseases, to help clarify if they are indeed causative as well as associated.
            If ALS (and PD etc.)people have compromised bbb, then it would be a good thing to avoid such neuroexcitotoxins- and other toxins as well, in diet as a precautionary measure. IMHO
            Processed foods are often (as in almost always)packed with neuroexcitotoxic ingredients, many of which do not have to be listed clearly in the labeling.

  • Jean Russeau

    I always wonder why everybody keeps talking about how bad McDonalds and its junk food is for your health (sure, it’s bad!!!!), but why give always the same example? Here we go, now, with another example. Instant noodles are as bad as McDonalds burgers, fries, and all the rest of it. It’s time to realize that we eat much more junk food than we think. Knowledge is the key for change.

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