Instant noodles

They might be quick but they can also be unhealthy. Read how you can improve this popular snack. By Kirsten Braun

Instant noodles in their packet

Instant noodles are popular with many people including students, young children and those on a tight budget. There are two main varieties, those that you need to cook on the stove top in boiling water and those that you add boiling water to in a styrofoam cup or bowl. There are many different brands and flavours, which makes it difficult to generalise on their nutritional content as this can also vary greatly. Overall, though, if prepared as directed they have limited nutritional value and are often high in fat and salt.

One study of Korean women published in the Journal of Nutrition found that those who ate instant noodles twice a week or more had an increased risk of metabolic syndrome than those who didn’t eat them or ate them less. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions that occur together and increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Dietician Trudy Williams and author of book this=that: A life-size photo guide to food serves likens a brick of instant noodles to “an unfilled sandwich when it comes to fuel and energy.” She advises that for instant noodles to keep you feeling fuller for longer you need to add other ingredients such as vegetables and/or protein.

As there are many brands and flavours, it is important to read the product’s nutritional panel. Here is a general guide to what instant noodles typically contain:

Fat. Instant noodles are quick to prepare because they are precooked, usually fried in oil. The noodles themselves can, therefore, have a high oil content and that is without adding any of the included seasonings. In addition, the oils used are typically saturated fats, often palm oil, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The fat content of one popular styrofoam cup brand contains almost 14% of fat, with 8% being saturated. There are low fat varieties available which have only 1.9% total fat content.

Salt content. Most instant noodles have a high salt content, predominantly found in the flavour sachet. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend a maximum of 2300 milligrams (mg) of sodium (salt) per day for adults and children 14 years and older. This drops to 2000 mg for children aged 9 to 13, 1400 mg for 4 to 8 year olds and only 1000 mg for those under 3. The Heart Foundation advises we choose foods that have less than 120 mg of sodium per 100 grams (g). Many instant noodles have in excess of 500 mg of sodium per 100 g. One instant noodle snack can contribute to half an adult’s maximum daily intake of sodium or in the case of a small child, their entire daily intake.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - 621. Many noodles contain MSG as a flavour enhancer. It can be identified on the nutritional panel as the number 621. Some people experience reactions to MSG and many people prefer to avoid consuming it, especially in the case of young children.

Antioxidants - 319, 320. We usually think of antioxidants as being beneficial but there are also synthetic antioxidants, mostly used in products to stop oils from going rancid. Synthetic antioxidants can have unpleasant side effects and number 320 has actually been banned in Japan after links to cancerous tumours in animals.  

Fibre. Instant noodles are predominantly made with white wheat flour and are, therefore, low in fibre. There are some wholegrain varieties available but the percentage of wholegrains they contain is still relatively small, 1.9 g of dietary fibre per serve or only 6% of a person’s daily intake.

Kilojoules (kJ). We often think of instant noodles as more of a snack than a complete meal, but they are high in kilojoules, particularly those sold in the larger bowl sizes. They are a high density food, meaning that they contain a lot of kilojoules for a small volume of food. An instant noodle cake prepared as directed can contain as much as 1500 kJ in one serve. With a larger bowl size this increases to 1650 kJ.

Glycaemic Index (GI). Instant noodles have a high GI rating. The GI rating measures how fast a food raises blood glucose levels, with foods with a higher index rating raising blood sugar more rapidly than foods with a lower index rating. 

Colour. Some brands use natural colours (riboflavin, turmeric etc.) but others have artificial colours.

How can you improve instant noodles?

Choose a better brand – if you are still going to stick with instant noodles then look for brands with a lower fat content.

Use less of the flavour sachet – the flavour sachet is where the salt, MSG and other nasties comes from so cutting down on how much of it you use is an improvement. Even better, ditch the sachet altogether and instead use a small amount of reduced salt soy sauce, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) or other flavourings such as fresh herbs, chilli, garlic, lime juice or a few drops of sesame oil.

Drain away excess liquid – this will drain away a lot of the excess salt and fat too.

Use half a noodle cake at a time – by reducing the amount of noodles you use and adding other ingredients like vegetables you can improve the nutritional value.

Add quick cooking vegetables – to boost the nutritional content, add some finely chopped carrot, spring onion, snow peas or cabbage to the noodles. Asian greens, spinach leaves and bean sprouts also cook quickly and can easily boost the vegetable content. No time for cutting up vegetables? – use a packet of good quality mixed Asian vegetables or peas and corn instead. 

Add some protein – an egg can be added to poach in the liquid broth or alternatively mixed through drained noodles and scrambled for a further minute or so. Alternatively, add some left-over cooked chicken, a tin of tuna or some tofu. Including protein helps keeps people feeling fuller for longer.

Choose different types of noodles – to make a real difference you can choose different types of noodles to begin with. Rather than the instant noodle variety, try shelf stable noodles such as hokkien noodles or soba noodles. Look for them in the section near the rice in the supermarket.

Last updated: December 2015

© Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee in December 2015. It was first published in Health Journey 2015 Issue 3-4.

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