Have you ever wondered what goes into the otaku’s go-to food on the cheap? It’s also Naruto’s favorite food–ramen. The bowl of noodles and magic-flavor powder, like most packaged foods, is a wonder of engineering and chemical science. There is some actual food in it too. Some brands have slightly different formulas (you really can’t call them recipes), but these components are in most of them. I pulled this list from a package of chicken-flavored ramen in my cabinet.
Enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, mononitrate, Riboflavin, folic acid) This is wheat flour that’s been processed to take out much of the good, healthy stuff and then some of it is put back into it artificially. Like with all food-processing, this is done to stretch the batches and increase profits.
Palm Oil – oil derived from the pulp of oil palm fruit. It’s cheap, and it has a long shelf life. It’s oil appears in soaps, detergents, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical drugs. In 2015, we consumed 17 pounds of it, on average over the year (Raghu, 2017).
Salt – Salt is the go-to preservative and flavor enhancer. In the past, people died from not getting enough salt. It’s necessary for our health, but now people die because of getting too much of it. It’s hard to avoid salt too. As ramen goes, if you eat an entire block and its magic powder–and who doesn’t?–you’ll eat 1500mg of salt, at least half the recommended amounts you are supposed to eat.
Autolyzed yeast extract – This is a fancy name for yeast corpses. Yep, you are eating the remains and poop of yeast. Their cell walls break down as they eat proteins and release amino acids, salts, and carbs. Food engineers separate the yeast and their poop from the stuff that doesn’t dissolve in water ( Wiesenfelder, 2017). The result tastes umami, like monosodium glutamate and mushrooms.
Dried leek flake – Real food! A leek is a type of veggie related to onion, garlic, scallion, and chives. In this case, the leek is dried and turned into flakes.
Egg white — Don’t eat ramen if you have an egg allergy.
Garlic powder — More real food! This staple in cooking is good on spaghetti, buttered bread, and more.
Hydrolyzed corn and soy protein – Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is made by taking wheat gluten in water and mixing it with an enzyme like Neutrase to break down the proteins. The result is a protein with umami flavor. It happens naturally in foods like cheese and other foods that ferment for a time (Wang and others, 2015).
Lactose – Lactose is better known as milk sugar. It’s a type of sugar that appears in milk and can be extracted to add to other foods, like ramen.
Maltodextrin – A food additive that comes from partial hydrolysis of starches like corn or wheat. It contains glucose, sugar, molecules within it. It shows up in candy, beer, soft drinks, potato chips, jerky, and more. It thickens foods.
Natural flavors – The “secret recipe” that gives ramen its beef, chicken, or donut flavor. Yeah, not so much donut, but there are tons of flavors out there. The flavors are likely spices such as paprika, onion powder (which is listed), chili powder, etc.
Potassium carbonate – A type of salt used in making soap and glass. It’s a drying agent that keeps powders like ramen’s magic powder from clumping with moisture. It’s also used in making cocoa powder. It appears naturally or is manufactured.
Potassium chloride – This type of salt can be used to make potassium carbonate. It appears in natural rocks like sylvite.
Sodium alginate – Yet another salt (explains the 1700mg a packet, doesn’t it?) that comes from brown algae. It protects against intestinal absorption of radioactive isotopes so you can’t say ramen isn’t at least a little healthy (National Center for Biotechnology, n.d. A). Ramen sounds like a good food to have in the event of a nuclear war, eh?
Sodium carbonate – Works as a water softener and comes from the ashes of plants or from seaweed. Used in making glass.
Powered chicken – Bones and all?
Rendered chicken fat – Rendering takes all the waste parts of a chicken and turns it into fats like lard or tallow. Think candles.
Silicon dioxide – In a word, sand. Silica, which contains silicon dioxide is the major component of sand.
Sodium tripolyphosphate – Used in laundry detergents and dish-washing detergents. It’s used in foods to texture and thicken (National Center for Biotechnology Information, n.d. B)
Soybeans – Something natural! Actually, a good number of the ingredients in ramen appear in nature or through natural processes which allows the marketers to use the phrases “natural flavors” and “contains small amounts of naturally occurring glutamates”. All of which is true.
Spice and color – Gotta get the chicken-gold broth looking and tasting right.
Succinic acid – Used in medicines and making lacquer. The acid is also found in and around cancer tumors. It’s main purpose here is to add to ramen’s shelf life (National Center for Biotechnology Information, n.d. C).
Sugar – Balances all the salt.
TBHQ – Short for Tert-Butylhydroquinone. An antioxidant used to add shelf life.
Wheat – Some whole wheat is hidden in the noodles.
Many of these components are common to processed-packaged foods where self-life is one of the main factors. As you can see, ramen has many different types of salts. Salts are the most common additive in packaged foods because we crave them, and they help food keep longer. But too much salt is linked to health issues such as high-blood pressure and vertigo. Salt is hard to avoid today, but with some planning you can curb it. So if you want a bowl of ramen, you can enjoy it. Just cut salt from the other meals you eat that day and drink a lot of water.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d. A) PubChem Compound Database; CID=5102882, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5102882.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d. B) PubChem Compound Database; CID=24455, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/24455
National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d. C) PubChem Compound Database; CID=1110, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/1110
Raghu, Anuradha (2017). We Each Consume 17 Pounds of Palm Oil a Year. Bloomberg News. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-17/soap-to-chocolate-we-consume-17-pounds-of-palm-oil-each-year
Wang, Lihua and others (2015) Enhancement of umami taste of hydrolyzed protein from wheat gluten by β-cyclodextrin. J Sci Food Agric 96. 4499-4504.
Wiesenfelder, Heidi (2017) What is Autolyzed Yeast Extract? LiveStrong. https://www.livestrong.com/article/71755-autolyzed-yeast-extract/