How nutritious are instant noodles?

PHOTO: How nutritious are instant noodles?

In East Asia, instant noodles require no introduction.

In almost every nation from South-East to North-East Asia, you can find shelves upon shelves of different types and brands of instant noodles in supermarkets and grocery stores.

Despite the huge variety, they all share common characteristics.

Most come in forms that require little or no cooking - the simplest being adding hot water to the contents and the most complex being boiling the noodles for a few minutes longer.

They always come with seasoning packets that contain salt, spices and flavouring. Some even include dehydrated vegetables and seafood to cater to the more discerning instant-noodle consumer.

While it is immensely convenient and cheap to whip up a bowl of instant noodles, it is widely considered unhealthy to do so.

A consumer association in Malaysia has even gone as far as to call on consumers to avoid eating instant noodles as it is "harmful to health" due to the presence of food additives and high sodium content.

However, nutritionists and dietitians have adopted a more realistic view - most recommending consumption only once in a while and preparations that are more balanced with the addition of vegetables and protein sources.

The anatomy of instant noodles

As instant noodles are generally perceived as "junk food", many do not delve into their ingredients before deciding that all of them are unhealthy.

In Malaysia, a 75g pack of instant noodles contain on average about 300-350 kilocalories that is contributed by about 45g of carbohydrates, 8g of protein and 13g of fat.

Bigger packets can contain up to 400 kilocalories.

The noodles are usually made out of wheat or tapioca flour, vegetable or palm oil extracts, and salt with added food conditioners, while the soup pack usually contains salt, sugar, mixed spices, soy sauce and flavour enhancers.

Some instant noodles are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but the majority do not contain significant amounts of other nutrients.

If we take it on its own, instant noodles are mostly plain carbohydrates, says dietitian Prof Winnie Chee.

"That's why if you have to take it once in a while, make sure you add vegetables or eggs to make it more balanced," she says.

It is also better to have instant noodles as a meal instead of an additional snack, Prof Chee adds.

Myths debunked

For instant-noodle lovers, it is rather common to have health-conscious friends warning them off their favourite food with claims like wax linings on noodles and that it causes balding.

In 2013, mythbuster site looked into the claim about wax linings and labelled it "false".

"Coating the interior of a styrofoam container with wax one knows will be used to heat a product would be rather pointless, because heat will melt wax, thus incorporating what was supposed to be part of the package into the foodstuff.

"Manufacturers of instant foods have a hard enough time convincing folks that their stuff tastes good enough to eat without introducing melted wax into the equation," read's coverage about the claim.

If that logic doesn't appeal to you, try this: health authorities would not allow such a product to be marketed anywhere.

As for balding, there are beliefs that monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, in instant noodles can lead to increased hair loss.

"There is no science supporting that," says Prof Chee.

Occasional and balanced

Although instant noodles are rather harmless to consume, it is wise to limit our intake as it comes with high levels of salt we can't readily taste - making it harder to notice the amount of salt we are consuming.

This is especially important to those who have health conditions that require dietary restrictions on sodium (salt), like heart failure, high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease.

When we do indulge once in a while, it is also important to go light on the seasoning packet and add in nutritious ingredients such as vegetables, eggs, meat or seafood.

Prof Chee's advice on instant noodles is simple.

"Try to minimise intake, and if you have to take it, please keep it balanced," she says.

This article is courtesy of Nestlé.