A quick, easy, tasty and cost-effective food option … instant noodles have taken India by storm, since their introduction in 1984. They have found their way into the stomach (and heart!) of many across the country. Their different flavours and ease of preparation made these noodles a quick stand by option in the kitchen. We even managed to get customized flavours to suit our Indian palette. These ranged from ‘Vegetable Atta’ to ‘Curry’ and even ‘Biryani’ flavoured noodles. In fact, instant noodles have almost become a kitchen staple. Then came the tragic news (for some) that these noodles had been banned! Shock and disbelief followed. People joked that since the ban on instant noodles, 90% of girls on matrimony sites had to remove ‘cooking’ from their profile when asked for hobby/ expertise! We alternatively laughed and cried over these new developments. On one side, there was anger over the unhealthy ingredients being added to the noodles. On the other hand, ironically these widely marketed noodles were ‘in a soup’.
Jokes aside, what goes into these noodles? And should we be eating them?
As consumers, it is important to know where our foods are coming from and what goes into their preparation. This is especially important for any packaged or convenience food. Despite our love for instant noodles many Indian consumers will agree that these noodles are unhealthy. They contain maida which in no way compares to whole wheat atta commonly used for preparing chapathis. On the global front, India stands fourth in instant noodle consumption. As a nation, we consume 5.5 billion servings a year.
What makes these noodles unhealthy?
Unhealthy ingredients and pre-preparation:
A food product that can be cooked in a jiffy (2 minutes to be precise), has a long shelf life and comes loaded with taste may seem too good to be true. Think of all the time and effort that goes into cooking a standard Indian meal, from rice or chapathis, to a sabji and daal. How is it that these noodles can be cooked so quickly? The noodles are predominantly made of maida (even those that claim to be made of atta or multigrain, contain maida as the main ingredient), they are then deep fried in palm oil (a trans-fat), which again has a long shelf life and tastes better. This is why the noodles are crispy when packed and take very less time to cook. While we demonize butter and ghee, trans fats are bad on a whole new level.
Low in nutrients:
Eating instant noodles on a regular basis, shows that a diet is not nutritionally sound or adequate. Though the noodles claim to be high in added vitamins, protein etc. Studies have shown that those who eat noodles regularly have poor levels of protein, calcium, vitamin C, phosphorus, iron, niacin and vitamin A. The noodles are also low in fiber and protein which are both important for health and for weight management. In fact, a study done among college students in Seoul who consumed noodles regularly found that noodle intake was positively associated with an increase in obesity and cardiometabolic syndrome. The researchers also reported high triglyceride, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels in students. (1)
High in sodium, maida
Depending on the brand, instant noodles can contain anywhere between 600- 2000 mg of sodium per serving! This can raise blood pressure levels in those who are salt sensitive.
As mentioned earlier, these noodles are made of maida as a primary ingredient. Maida is low in fiber and lacks nutrients. It can also impair digestion. Maida undergoes extensive processing stripping it of its nutrients and provides only empty calories.
Flavouring agents and preservatives.
When Health Officials raised a hue and cry about the MSG- Monosodium Glutamate in noodles, manufacturers cleverly hid this under flavouring agents. Some may not even list this on their ingredient label though MSG is present. While MSG has been listed as ‘safe’ by the FDA- Food and Drug Administration, a regular intake of the tastemaker with the noodles can expose you to the negative effects of MSG. These include headaches, muscle tingling, allergic reactions, rapid heartbeat and fatigue. A look at the ingredient list that has numbers to denote Flavour enhancers, Raising agents, Colour and Acidifying agents shows how unhealthy the product actually is.
Food Safety And Drug Administration (FSDA) in Lucknow sent noodle samples for testing. Aside from high amounts of Monosodium Glutamate, the lead present was higher than the acceptable range. Lead can be ingested through food and water and its negative effects are not seen immediately. When children are exposed to lead it leads to a host of problems as their bodies are still developing. Lead can damage the brain, kidneys, liver and bones. It could also lead to hormonal changes and bloating.
But it contains vegetables, doesn’t it?
Those dehydrated, miniscule bits of vegetables cannot be counted for providing much nutrition. The extensive processing and dehydration removes most of the vitamin and mineral content from the vegetables that do find their way into the noodles.
What are the alternatives?
Instead of these quick, 2-minute noodles, try using noodle brands that contain whole grains or multigrain as the first few ingredients. Brands on online shopping portals and health food stores offer noodles made from buckwheat and millets. Cook with non-stick cookware so you use less oil and add in a lot of fresh vegetables. Get creative with carrots, cabbage, capsicum and mushrooms for a healthy and nutritious dish. Brands like-Little Moppet Foods sell noodles that contain healthier ingredients. In addition, you could also try preparing whole wheat, multigrain or quinoa pasta at home. Opt for a tomato based sauce and again add lots of fresh vegetables like- tomatoes, capsicum, zucchini and mushrooms for a wholesome and tasty dish.
An occasional packet of instant noodles will not kill you. So, if you eat them once in a while, there is no need to get queasy. However, substituting whole foods and a healthy diet with instant noodles is not good for your health. Limiting on processed foods, may mean you need to get more organized and plan your meals in advance. You will be amazed at the variety of healthy, whole foods- like whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables and pulses and the nutritional benefits they confer. Do yourself a favour and make an effort to eat healthy. Instead of a two-minute meal you may need to spend some extra time in the kitchen. But your family and your body will thank you for it!
With inputs from:
15. Shin HJ et al., Instant noodle intake and dietary patterns are associated with distinct cardiometabolic risk factors in Korea. J Nutr. 2014 Aug;144(8):1247-55 doi: 10.3945/jn.113.188441. Epub 2014 Jun 25.