When we think about ramen, two scenes pop into our heads: First, a college dorm room with a microwave splattered in UFOs (unidentified food objects) and a 25-cent package of instant noodles — an inexpensive and delicious option for the broke higher-ed student. Second, a trendy spot in the city that squeezes 100 people into what used to be someone's closet, serving up fancy gourmet versions of noodles in a bowl — much more expensive than the instant, but fresher and filled with more ingredients.
They've got the same name and general concept, but how do the two options compare in terms of their health benefits — or lack thereof? We did some research and broke it down for you:
Instant Ramen: These quick meals are notorious for high levels of sodium, but what exactly does that mean? Let's start by looking at exactly how much is in a serving. Top Ramen, one of the popular instant noodle brands, lists a sodium level of 910 mg, or 38 percent of the recommended daily value per serving — which is only half of the noodle block. If you eat the whole thing — which, let's be honest, most of us do — that's over 75 percent of your recommended daily sodium intake in one meal.
How does that actually affect your body? A 2014 study conducted by Baylor University looked at over 10,000 South Koreans and found that people, especially women, who ate instant ramen two or more times a week were more likely to have metabolic syndrome — that's a grouping of risk factors such as high blood pressure and obesity that can ultimately lead to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Restaurant Ramen: While the noodles aren't processed and there are fresher ingredients in these dishes, the amount of sodium in one dish is still a huge chunk of the recommended daily intake. The Star in Toronto analyzed a couple of restaurant ramen orders and found that one had about 1,000 mg more sodium than the daily allotment — the total equivalent of adding about 85 shakes of salt to your meal. Yikes.
Another restaurant, the famous Momofuku Noodle Bar, was found to serve a ramen dish with 500 mg of sodium more than the daily allotment. The dish, which is packed with pork, pink-swirled fish cake, and an egg, also had twice the amount of calories recommended per meal.
Instant Ramen: At a super low cost, these packs are a great quick and easy meal when you're in a rush. While it's been proven that long-term consumption of ramen can put your health at risk, an occasional bowl should be OK, especially when paired with other smart diet choices. You can also swap out part or all of the sodium-laden seasoning packet with real spices, fresh veggies, tofu, chicken, and other healthier ingredients, or make your own version from scratch with rice noodles and homemade broth. (Here's a recipe from The Kitchn.)
Restaurant Ramen: A delicious meal and trendy experience, restaurant ramen also has fresher ingredients and (usually) plenty of protein. To reduce some of the negative nutritional effects, resist the urge to slurp up all of the broth as that's where most of the sodium lies.
The Bottom Line
Ramen has its nutritional flaws, but paying attention to your sodium intake and hacking your meal to make it healthier will allow you to enjoy the dish in moderation.