Photograph by Briana Zimmers/Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Briana Zimmers/Creative Commons 2.0
The Plate

The Ramen Noodle Diet: Not Just for College Students

By Diana Wilkinson, The George Washington University

Whenever my mom tells stories about her life as a young working professional, she typically reminisces about her first job, her first apartment, and how she lived off meals like packaged ramen noodles.

I realized I had come to a similar point in my life as I carefully stacked about 30 packages of ramen noodles on top of my fridge. Instant ramen noodles still give young people (including me) a quick, easy and moderately tasty meal for a very low cost. A 12-pack of beef-flavored Maruchan Ramen is just under $2.25. That’s potentially 12 meals for just 19 cents each. While they may be cheap, though, these meals are far from nutritious.

A typical package of Nissen Top Ramen “Oodles of Noodles” contains about 380 calories, 14 grams of fat and over 1,800 mg of sodium—over two-thirds of the FDA recommended maximum amount and 10 times the minimum daily amount.

An excess of sodium in a person’s diet can increase risk of heart failure, stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure. These instant ramen noodles also contain other potentially harmful ingredients: MSG and palm oil. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists nausea, chest pain, and difficulty breathing for those with asthma as potential side effects of the consumption of MSG. The palm oil has high saturated fat, which can lead to elevated risk of heart disease.

View Images

Beyond College: Ramen Out of Necessity

The possible health hazards have not hindered ramen’s growing popularity. In 2012, more than 100 billion servings of the noodles were eaten worldwide. That comes to about 14 servings for every person on the planet.

For the millions of low-income Americans who receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Action Program (SNAP), living on a daily food budget of only $4 is a fact of life. Their options are severely limited to cheap meals—such ramen for 19 cents. (Find out how far $10 will stretch in a grocery store compared to a fast-food restaurant.)

While it’s easy to suggest alternatives, such as going to farmers markets to buy less expensive fresh food, many of those Americans don’t even have the option of going to a fully stocked store. According to the USDA, 23.5 million people live in food deserts, communities without easy access to fresh, healthy food. More than half of people living in food deserts are low-income.

While policy changes like an increase SNAP funding and more government support of smaller local farmers are crucial to ameliorating the issue of food insecurity, the average consumer can still make a difference. They can also support their local farmers market, or join the Food Justice Movement, to spread awareness about this issue.

It’s easy to assume that someone who eats ramen on a regular basis simply has unhealthy eating habits. But this assumption ignores a larger, more problematic picture. A tight budget and little time to cook are issues that transcend the university dorm room. From college quads to the inner city projects to retirement homes, people everywhere are increasingly finding themselves resigned to ramen.

Diana Wilkinson is a junior majoring in Journalism & Mass Communication at The George Washington University. This story is from our Planet Forward Campus Voices program—an opportunity for students to celebrate and explore our complex relationship with what we eat and where our food comes from.

See what it’s like to feed a family family using the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP).