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What’s in This?: Top Ramen

All 30 ingredients in this student sustainer, explained (yep, even sodium tripolyphosphate)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert.

This edition: Chicken-Flavored Top Ramen, which is made from 30 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.

The Ingredients

1) Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid): As we learned in our exploration of the many, many, many ingredients in the McDonald’s Big Mac, enriched flour isn’t actually “enriched” at all. In addition to containing more calories than whole wheat flour, the bleaching process enriched flour undergoes produces an unfortunate byproduct: A chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab-animal test subjects by destroying their pancreas.

2) Palm Oil: Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, previously told me that consuming too much vegetable oil — which is easy to do, considering Shanahan says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (i.e., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines). While it’s near impossible to eliminate vegetable oil from your diet altogether major contributors include processed foods, fried foods, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, margarines and coffee creamers — it’s best consumed in moderation.

Making matters even worse, as we discovered during our ranking of cooking oils by how unhealthy they are, palm oil is among the least healthy oils available, so again, it’s best consumed in moderation.

3) Salt: Surprise! One packet of Top Ramen is actually two servings, which means the entire thing contains a whopping 1,560 milligrams of sodium — for reference, the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and in an ideal world, they say that most adults should have no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. That’s because too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, as well as increased risk for heart disease and kidney disease.

4) Autolyzed Yeast Extract: Autolyzed yeast extract results when yeast is broken down into its individual components, which include the flavor enhancer MSG (more on that here). Because MSG is a natural component of autolyzed yeast, it doesn’t have to be listed separately on the ingredients lists — so watch out for this ingredient if you’re sensitive to MSG.

5) Citric Acid: Citric acid is a sour flavoring agent derived from citrus. It’s also a mild preservative.

6) Disodium Guanylate: Used in conjunction with MSG and disodium inosinate (see below), disodium guanylate has a savory taste that essentially allows manufacturers to increase the flavor of food without loading it with sodium (although as we’ve noted, they did that anyway). The risk of consuming too much of this stuff is more or less the same as MSG — i.e., headaches and nausea. That said, Shanahan previously told us there’s no reason to worry about these flavor enhancers as long as you consume them alongside some kind of protein — like, say, a slab of turkey — to quell those negative effects. You guys are all eating slab of turkey with your Top Ramen, right..?

7) Disodium Inosinate: A savory flavor enhancer that’s almost always used in conjunction with MSG and disodium guanylate. It’s a purine, meaning it’s one of the building blocks of DNA, and thus, it’s often derived from animal origin like beef, pork, poultry and fish. So if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, be sure to avoid products containing disodium inosinate.

8) Disodium Succinate: This is a flavor enhancer that provides a scallop-like taste. It can also deliver an umami flavor when blended with other savory ingredients, like the two mentioned above.

9) Dried Leek Flake: This is exactly what it sounds like — dried leek flakes used for flavoring.

10) Egg White: Egg whites are possibly added to help thicken the ramen. They also might provide some protein — one packet contains about 10 grams.

11) Garlic Powder: This is dehydrated, ground garlic. Duh.

12) Hydrolyzed Corn and Soy Protein: This ingredient is a flavor enhancer produced by boiling soy (or corn) in hydrochloric acid, then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide. The result is pure amino acids, which are often used to give processed foods a fuller flavor, similar to the way MSG is used.

13) Lactose: Lactose is the sugar found in dairy.

14) Maltodextrin: An artificial sugar made from maltose (aka malt sugar) and dextrose (see above), maltodextrin is usually used as a thickener or filler ingredient to add bulk to processed food and to increase its shelf life. (Maltodextrin itself has a shelf life of two years.)

15) Natural Flavor: Natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., chicken flavoring taken from real chickens.

16) Onion Powder: This is an easy one — dehydrated, ground onion used for flavoring.

17) Potassium Carbonate: This is an acidity regulator frequently used in the creation of ramen noodles.

18) Potassium Chloride: Potassium chloride is added to food for two reasons: 1) To act as a salt substitute; and 2) to enhance the amount of potassium an essential and widely under-consumed nutrient — found in the product. While small amounts — like that found in this ramen — shouldn’t do you any harm, nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, previously told me that consuming too much of the stuff is a bad idea. “Potassium chloride is used to induce cardiac arrest during executions by lethal injections,” he says. “That should speak volumes as to whether this ingredient belongs in our food supply.”

Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, also told me that you shouldn’t worry too much, though: “Potassium Chloride has a very bitter taste, and therefore, overuse is unlikely within our food supply.”

19) Powdered Chicken: Unfortunately, this is exactly what it sounds like, and it basically acts like a bouillon cube, adding a strong chicken flavor to the broth.

20) Rendered Chicken Fat: This also provides a hearty chicken flavor.

21) Silicon Dioxide: Silicon dioxide is an anti-caking agent that prevents clumping.

22) Sodium Alginate: This is a natural food additive that basically improves the texture by optimizing moisture levels.

23) Sodium Carbonate: A stronger, more caustic version of baking soda, sodium carbonate can be used to give ramen noodles their distinctive chewy texture.

24) Sodium Tripolyphosphate: This is a preservative most often used to make seafood appear firmer, smoother and glossier. While sodium tripolyphosphate is a suspected neurotoxin in large quantities, the FDA limits how much can be added to any one food product. So that’s a… relief?

25) Soybean: This is most likely added as a cheap form of protein.

26) Spice and Color: As we learned in our exploration of the ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, the FDA doesn’t require food labelers to list each spice by their specific name (as a means of protecting their recipes) so long as it follows their definition of the word “spice”:

“The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.”

The “color,” meanwhile, is most likely artificial, but that might not be such a big deal. “Because color molecules are a similar shape to some of our DNA structures, they’re able to make their way in there and cause issues,” Shanahan previously told me. “That said, I’ve always been of the opinion that studies claiming artificial colors can cause cancer are irrelevant because [in the studies] they use really high amounts of the artificial colors — like, a million times more than you’d ever get [in your] food [throughout your lifetime].” So the average person’s liver should be able to break down whatever miniscule amount of artificial coloring we consume with food.

27) Succinic Acid: This is a natural acid found in various foods, and it’s most often used as an acidity regulator, but it also can be used as a flavoring agent.

28) Sugar: This might add a touch of sweetness, but then again, the nutrition label says there are zero grams of sugar in Top Ramen, so who knows what’s going on here.

29) TBHQ: This is a preservative that acts like an antioxidant, preventing rancidity and discoloration. Studies cited by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest found that TBHQ promotes the growth of tumors in rats, and the National Library of Medicine says that vision disturbances have been reported by humans after consuming the preservative. While the FDA only allows TBHQ to be added in small amounts, this is still an ingredient to be wary of.

30) Wheat: Ramen noodles are usually made from wheat.

The Takeaway

Top Ramen is filled to the brim with potentially dangerous preservatives and possibly harmful flavor enhancers. Perhaps even worse, one packet of Top Ramen may very well bring you to the brink of a sodium overdose. But considering your reason for eating this stuff — you have negative $6.30 in your bank account — you could probably be doing a whole lot worse. So just remember to eat some veggies every once in a while.