Are instant noodles bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden / 14 August, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

The nutritional value of sodium-heavy instant noodles should be taken with a grain of salt. 

New Zealand’s instant noodles are a salty old bunch, according to a new study. Although they’re favourite snacks of many young people, do these ultra-processed instant foods have a place in a healthy diet?

Cardiovascular disease – heart attacks and strokes – is the leading cause of death worldwide. It kills a third of New Zealanders; notably, our rates of death from both heart attacks and strokes are higher than those of Australia, the US and the UK.

Reducing your salt intake, and thereby lowering your blood pressure, is considered a “best-buy” for preventing illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, say researchers in a recent review of instant-noodle salt content in the journal Nutrients. They analysed hundreds of instant-noodle products, which were typically dried noodles packaged with dried flavourings and seasonings.

Salt is a cheap ingredient that is found widely in our food. Although nearly half of adults (aged 15-plus) in the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey said they never or rarely added salt to prepared food, our national salt intake is much greater than is good for us because of high levels of sodium in processed foods. Each gram of salt contains 400mg of sodium. On average, we swallow 9g of salt a day, three times more than is required for good health and nearly double the World Health Organisation’s population target of 5g a day.

This year marks a decade since the Heart Foundation began work with the bread industry to cut down on sodium content. Bread contains only moderate amounts of salt, but we eat so much of it that it can make a significant contribution to our diet. So do high-salt foods such as processed meats, savoury snacks (such as potato chips), sauces (tomato and soy sauces, for example), fast foods and processed foods such as instant noodles.

A single serving of chicken-flavoured Maggi 2 Minute Noodles, for example, contains 935mg of sodium – nearly 60% of the Ministry of Health’s suggested optimum daily dietary target of 1600mg “to lower our risk of chronic disease”.

Instant noodles are typically made from wheat flour, starch, water and salt, with other ingredients added to improve texture and flavour. They are eaten as a snack, as a meal or as part of a meal. Their convenience, long shelf life and low price make them popular.

The researchers’ review of 765 instant-noodle products from 10 countries found wide variations in sodium content. In Australia, for example, it ranged from 950-3050mg per 100g (“as sold”), suggesting to the researchers that manufacturers can produce less-salty noodles that are acceptable to consumers.

Interestingly, although the average sodium content of New Zealand products appeared to be low when they were assessed by packaged weight, when the levels were assessed in their “prepared” state, our noodles had the highest average sodium content (388mg), much higher than the UK average of 220mg.

Of 42 tested New Zealand products, only 19 (46%) met the UK 2017 Maximum Sodium Target (350mg per 100g as consumed). The result was similar for Australian noodles but well below the UK’s 90%.

In addition to being high in sodium, instant noodles provide little, if any, useful nutrients to promote good health. In contrast, two slices of wholegrain toast with peanut butter contain a host of important nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, protein and a good dose of healthy fats.

Moves by instant-noodle manufacturers to reduce sodium content could bring real health benefits to consumers, just as bread reformulation efforts have already done. However, eating fewer ultra-processed foods is better for you and can be as simple as slapping some peanut butter on a slice of bread.

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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