Instant noodles are a popular convenience food eaten all over the world.
Though they're inexpensive and easy to prepare, there is controversy over whether or not they have adverse health effects.
This is because they contain few nutrients and high amounts of sodium and MSG.
This article looks at the possible effects of instant noodles on health.
Instant noodles are a type of pre-cooked noodle, usually sold in individual packets or cups and bowls.
Typical ingredients in the noodles include flour, salt and palm oil. The flavoring packets generally contain salt, seasoning and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
After the noodles have been made in the factory, they are steamed, dried and packaged (1).
Each package contains a block of dried noodles as well as a packet of flavoring and/or oil for seasoning. Buyers cook or soak the block of noodles in hot water with the flavoring before eating it.
Popular brands of instant noodles include:
- Top Ramen
- Cup Noodles
- Mr. Noodles
- Sapporo Ichiban
- Kabuto Noodles
Summary: Instant noodles are pre-cooked noodles that have been steamed and dried. They're usually soaked in hot water before they're eaten.
Though there can be a good deal of variability between different brands and flavors of instant noodles, most types have certain nutrients in common.
One serving of beef-flavored ramen noodles contains these nutrients (2):
- Calories: 188
- Carbs: 27 grams
- Total fat: 7 grams
- Saturated fat: 3 grams
- Protein: 4 grams
- Fiber: 0.9 grams
- Sodium: 861 mg
- Thiamine: 43% of the RDI
- Folate: 12% of the RDI
- Manganese: 11% of the RDI
- Iron: 10% of the RDI
- Niacin: 9% of the RDI
- Riboflavin: 7% of the RDI
Keep in mind that one package of ramen contains two servings, so if you're eating the entire package in one sitting, the amounts above would be doubled.
It's also worth noting that there are some special varieties available that are marketed as healthier options. These may be made using whole grains or have lower amounts of sodium or fat.
Summary: The majority of instant noodles are low in calories, fiber and protein, but high in fat, carbs, sodium and some micronutrients.
Because instant noodles are lower in calories, eating them could potentially lead to weight loss.
On the other hand, many people eat the whole noodle pack in one sitting, meaning they're actually consuming two servings.
It's also important to note that instant noodles are low in fiber and protein, which may not make them the best option when it comes to weight loss.
With only 4 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber per serving, a serving of instant noodles likely won't make much of a dent in your hunger or fullness levels. So despite being low in calories, it may not benefit your waistline (2).
Summary: Instant noodles are low in calories, which could help decrease calorie intake. However, they are also low in fiber and protein and may not support weight loss or make you feel very full.
Despite being relatively low in some nutrients like fiber and protein, instant noodles contain several micronutrients, including iron, manganese, folate and B vitamins.
Some instant noodles are also fortified with additional nutrients.
In Indonesia, about half of instant noodles are fortified with vitamins and minerals, including iron. One study actually found that consuming iron-fortified milk and noodles can decrease the risk of anemia, a condition caused by iron deficiency (9).
Additionally, some instant noodles are made using fortified wheat flour, which has shown potential in increasing micronutrient intake without changing the taste or texture of the final product (10).
Research has also shown that eating instant noodles could be associated with an increase in the intake of certain micronutrients.
A 2011 study compared the nutrient intake of 6,440 instant noodle consumers and non-instant noodle consumers.
Those who consumed instant noodles had a 31% greater intake of thiamine and a 16% higher intake of riboflavin than those who did not eat instant noodles (11).
Summary: Some types of instant noodles are fortified to add extra vitamins and minerals. Instant noodle intake may be linked to a higher intake of riboflavin and thiamine.
Most instant noodles contain an ingredient known as monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common food additive used to enhance flavor in processed foods.
Though the FDA recognizes MSG as safe for consumption, its potential effects on health remain controversial (12).
MSG is also naturally found in products such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, soy extract, tomatoes and cheese.
However, other studies have found no association between weight and MSG when people consume it in moderate amounts (15).
Some research has also suggested MSG may negatively impact brain health. One test-tube study found that MSG could cause swelling and death of mature brain cells (16).
Nevertheless, other research has shown that dietary MSG likely has little effect on brain health, since even large amounts are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier (17).
Though MSG is likely safe in moderation, some people may have a sensitivity to MSG and should limit their intake.
This condition is known as the MSG symptom complex. Sufferers may experience symptoms such as headaches, muscle tightness, numbness and tingling (18).
Summary: Instant noodles often contain MSG, which may cause adverse effects in high doses and could trigger symptoms in those with a sensitivity.
Some research has found that regular consumption of instant noodles may be associated with poor overall diet quality.
One study compared the diets of instant noodle consumers and non-instant noodle consumers.
While the instant noodle consumers did have an increased intake of a few select micronutrients, they had a significantly decreased intake of protein, calcium, vitamin C, phosphorus, iron, niacin and vitamin A.
Additionally, the study found that instant noodle consumers had an increased intake of sodium and calories compared to the non-instant noodle consumers (11).
Instant noodles may also increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a condition that increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
A 2014 study looked at the diets of 10,711 adults. It found that eating instant noodles at least twice per week increased the risk of metabolic syndrome in women (19).
Another study looked at vitamin D status and its relation to dietary and lifestyle factors in 3,450 young adults.
Intake of instant noodles was associated with decreased levels of vitamin D. It was also associated with obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (20).
Summary: Studies show that instant noodle intake may be associated with a higher intake of sodium, calories and fat plus a lower intake of protein, vitamins and minerals.
A single serving of instant noodles contains 861 mg of sodium.
However, if you eat the entire package, that amount doubles to 1,722 mg of sodium (2).
There is evidence showing that high sodium intake may have a negative effect on certain people who are considered salt-sensitive.
These individuals may be more susceptible to the effects of sodium and an increase in sodium intake may cause an increase in blood pressure (21).
Those who are black, over 40 years old or have a family history of high blood pressure are the most likely to be affected (22).
Studies have shown that reducing sodium intake could be beneficial for those who are salt-sensitive.
One study looked at the effects of reduced salt intake in over 3,153 participants. In participants with high blood pressure, each 1,000-mg reduction in sodium intake led to a 0.94 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure (23).
Another study followed adults at risk of developing high blood pressure over a period of 10–15 years to examine the long-term effects of salt reduction.
In the end, it found that reducing sodium intake decreased the risk of a cardiovascular event by up to 30% (24).
Summary: Instant noodles are high in sodium, which may be associated with high blood pressure in individuals who are salt-sensitive.
If you do enjoy the occasional cup of noodles, there are ways to make it healthier.
Picking instant noodles made from whole grains, for example, can increase fiber content and boost feelings of fullness.
Lower-sodium instant noodles are also available and can help bring down your sodium intake for the day.
Dr. McDougall's, Koyo and Lotus Foods are just a few brands that sell some healthier varieties of instant noodles.
You can also use your instant noodles as a base and top them with some healthy ingredients to make a more well-rounded meal.
Throwing in some vegetables and a good source of protein can enhance the nutrition profile of your instant noodle dinner.
Summary: Choosing instant noodles that are lower in sodium or made from whole grains can give your instant noodles a healthy upgrade. Adding vegetables and a protein source can help round it out.
In moderation, including instant noodles in your diet likely won't come with any negative health effects.
However, they are low in nutrients, so don't use them as a staple in your diet.
What's more, frequent consumption is linked to poor diet quality and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome.
Overall, moderate your consumption, pick a healthy variety and add in some vegetables and a protein source.
Occasionally enjoying instant noodles is fine — as long as you're maintaining an otherwise healthy and well-rounded diet.