At the turn of the millennium a Japanese poll asked about the best Japanese invention of the previous century. Instant noodles was the answer. Japan as well as China have a long history of eating noodles, mostly wheat although rice noodles are also popular. In 1958 along came Momofuko Ando with an idea. If noodles were hot air dried or quickly fried after they were steamed, they would last a long time and could be readily cooked by dumping into boiling water. The instant noodles could be mixed with various flavor additives to yield a quick soup. Ramen noodles, using the Japanese term, are high in salt and some can contain a significant amount of fat. But the noodles are not “deadly.”
Why should that idea even come up? Because of headlines floating around the web about “what happens in your stomach when you consume packaged Ramen noodles with a deadly preservative.” This bit of nonsense refers to a video that has been making the rounds about an experiment carried out by gastroenterologist Dr. Braden Kuo at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Kuo had a subject swallow a “pill camera” capable of transmitting images from inside the gut. He found that processed noodles churned around in the stomach longer than fresh noodles before breaking down. This doesn’t have much significance since nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine after food has been broken down in the stomach, but how long that breakdown takes is not important. Why the processed noodles take longer to disintegrate in the stomach can have many reasons. The moisture and fat content of the noodles can be quite different, the gluten content which depends on the kind of flour used and the amount of kneading makes a difference, as does the shape of the noodles. But one thing that will not have an effect is the trace amount of a preservative known as tertiary butyl hydroquinone or TBHQ that may be present in some instant noodles.
Yet this is the ingredient that generated the nonsensical information that is being spread around the web. The claim is that it is the preservative that prevents the noodles from being broken down and the failure of the noodles to be broken down as quickly as fresh noodles represents some kind of danger to health. Both of these claims are absurd. The preservative, which in fact is not commonly used in noodles, prevents fat from going rancid, which is a process that can indeed produce toxins. The amount of TBHQ used is trivial, 0.02% by weight of the fat content of the food. That translates to a few milligrams, a tiny fraction of the amount that can cause any harm in an animal.
Of course the scary emails do not take amounts into account. Rather they blather on about nausea, diarrhea and ringing in the ears which may happen at huge doses of TBHQ that cannot be attained from food. And most assuredly, TBHQ has nothing to do with the rate at which noodles decompose in the stomach. This is not an argument for eating processed Ramen noodles, which are not great, particularly because of the salt content. But it is a plea for rational thinking, and the investigation of claims made by Internet bloggers who do not know what they are talking about. Dr. Kuo himself was not troubled by his findings and says that he eats processed noodles himself.