It’s the staple food of many poor college students and struggling young workers. Because of its extremely low price, seniors on a fixed income eat it. But South Koreans eat more instant noodles than people in any other country in the world – 3.4 billion packages in 2010. A study of the health effects of instant noodles focused on South Korea, and the results are disquieting.
The researchers were led by Hyun Joon Shin of Baylor University in Texas. The study examined data from the Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (KNHANES), for the years 2007–2009. The study looked at 10,711 adults, aged 19 through 64. The KNHANES includes a food-frequency questionnaire, which covers 63 of the foods and nutrients most popular in the country.
The researchers identified the two types of diet most prominent in South Korea. The first is the traditional diet, which they described as “rich in rice, fish, vegetables, fruit and potatoes,” and the second is the meat and fast-food diet, “with less rice intake but rich in eat, soda, fried food, and fast food including instant noodles.” This included all types of instant noodles, not just ramen.
Shin’s team wanted to determine whether some Koreans are unhealthy because of an overall poor diet, or do instant noodles themselves pose a health threat. They looked at the instant noodle intake of specific individuals, and found some patterns. They found that although many well-educated Koreans eat the meat and fast-food diet, they did not eat instant noodles. Noodles were most frequently consumed by people with lower incomes and levels of education.
Subjects of both genders who frequently ate instant noodles (approximately twice a week), and those in the highest quintile of the meat and fast-food diet group, were younger, more likely to smoke, drank more alcohol, were less physically active, and ate fewer carbohydrates.
While it was impossible for the researchers to definitively separate the effects of instant noodles from the general effects of the poor “meat pattern” diet, they did find that eating instant noodles only twice a week raises your risk of cardio-metabolic syndrome, a cause of heart disease, diabetes, and strokes. The effects were more striking in women.