Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ramen, my cholesterol levels, and the history of the world

So, I was trolling through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog this morning, and I came across this link to an NPR article on instant ramen. It’s “interesting throughout,” as Tyler Cowen would say.

The food that conquered the world.
Invented in Japan in the late 1950s, packaged dry ramen is “the most successful industrial food ever produced,” NPR tells me. Manufacturers sold 100 billion servings of the stuff in 2012, which works out, the article notes, to 14 servings for every person on the planet. If the Lord’s Prayer were being written today, it would probably say, “Give us this day our daily ramen.”  

I don’t rely on ramen the way some people do, but I go through phases when I eat it multiple times a week. In summer, I use it as a base for “hiyashi chu-ka,” a Japanese cold-noodle dish, and I make spicy garlic ramen with vegetables in the winter. 

I pride myself on tossing the seasoning packet and making my own soup instead – there’s roughly 1,800 milligrams of sodium in that sticky yellowish powder, 76 percent of your RDA!* I just use the block of noodles itself, because that’s the healthy part. Or so I thought.

While not exactly nutritious, instant noodles are a "proletariat hunger killer," as the anthropologist Sidney Mintz would say. They're made with wheat flour, which has a high glycemic index (a metric for how soon a food is likely to make you hungry again). But they're also fried in palm oil, which is 49 percent saturated fat [my italics - ts] — higher than pork lard (40 percent) and soybean oil (14 percent).
All that fat keeps you feeling full longer and helps bring the noodles' overall glycemic index down. ... Palm is the industry's oil of choice because it's cheap, it can withstand high heat, and it has a longer shelf life than other oils. But in the U.S., we're told to eat palm oil sparingly because it raises LDL cholesterol levels. 

The smoking gun - hidden
in plain sight
Holy crap! I immediately went and checked the nutrition information on the noodle packets I have. Sure enough: one block (i.e., two servings) has 7 grams of saturated fat, or 36 percent of your RDA.

Now, I started keeping a keen eye on my saturated fat intake last spring, when my doctor ordered some routine blood work. The tests indicated I had borderline high cholesterol levels, which surprised and alarmed me. I’ve striven for many years to eat healthy (healthily?) – limited red meat, limited processed foods, ix-nay on the pretzels, the donuts and the Hostess Ding Dongs. I stay slim, I exercise, I’ve never had a Big Gulp in my life. How could my LDL and triglycerides be so out of whack?

Go Steelers!
On reflection, it turned out that I was letting more saturated fat and sugar get through than I realized. There was a local brand of full-fat flavored yogurt I liked and consumed in quantity, I ate a lot of cheese, and I could go through a half-gallon of Blitzburgh Crunch ice cream in a week, thank you very much. I cut out those elements cold-turkey, my cholesterol levels dropped like a rock, and I figured I had the problem licked.

I never thought about the ramen.

And why should I? Ramen is a noodle, for heaven’s sake. Spaghetti doesn’t have saturated fat in it. (It really doesn’t; I just checked.) Neither do soba or udon noodles. Neither, for that matter, do fresh ramen noodles. It’s just the instant ramen bricks that do.

I consider myself a fairly committed label-reader. Yet I managed to consume hundreds of instant-ramen packets over the past several years without ever noticing the saturated fat content listed on every single one. I noticed the sodium, mind you, but not the fat content printed a mere three lines above it. In my mental model of the world, noodles don’t have fat in them, so why check to see if they do?

So, moral number one: In a world of human-engineered products, common sense is useless when it comes to ingredients. We can put anything in anything, and we do. We make yogurt red with dye extracted from crushed bugs, we spray viruses on meat to attack bacteria, we put the same kind of clay in cat litter, laxatives and skin cleanser. A block of instant ramen contains 75 percent more saturated fat than a serving of Blitzburgh Crunch.** It makes my head spin, but it’s true.

Second, a lot of people seem to think that providing people information is the beginning and the end of our public-health responsibilities regarding food. (And there’s a faction - it's called the food industry - that wouldn’t even go that far.) Label stuff, let people choose – and f*%# 'em if they choose wrong! They must be stupid, or lack willpower. 

Well, there has been a tsunami of nutrition information over the past couple of decades – the same couple of decades when our obesity rates went through the roof. There’s been a war, and information lost. Cheap, empty calories won, backed by agricultural subsidies and the might of the U.S. advertising industry. Information is a candle sputtering in the hurricane gale of everything else that makes people eat what they do.

Which I think gets us to moral number three: ramen as a signifier of the power imbalances in today’s world. According to that NPR article, ramen poses a painful dilemma for people thinking about global food supplies and food security:
[I]s it really wise for so many people around the world to be so reliant on instant ramen for sustenance? Why can't the urban poor eat something more nutritious than this highly processed, high-fat food?
Sure, that would be ideal, the authors say, but the reality is that in many cities, the poor lack affordable alternatives that are more healthful than ramen. "How are you going to feed these people?" says Gewertz. "I would love to feed them with fruits and vegetables at the local markets, but they are expensive."
Well, that’s because of industrialization, right? Back in the good old days, people lived in homey, communitarian villages where they had access to plentiful local, natural foods. Um, no, not by a long shot:
 An agricultural cereal-heavy diet does not contain enough iron to avoid anemia. It does not contain enough calcium to avoid tooth loss and bone weakness. Rome’s legions were paid in bread and a little salt—that’s what “salary” means. Add to this whatever meat they could find and whatever greens and seasonings they could gather, and you had the diet of the legionaries, collectively at least the most powerful group of men of their age. They wear highly-skilled practitioners of violence. They were mean. They were also short. And they were, by what we would regard as early middle age, largely toothless. …
In 1870 agricultural and commercial societies people were short. Average adult male heights of 5’3” (and adult female heights averaging 4’11”) appear to have been the rule for humanity once we started to farm. This indicates extraordinary malnutrition by our standards. If my wife and I had fed our boy and girl a diet to produce adult heights of 5’3” and 4’11” respectively, Contra Costa Child and Protective Services would have long since came and taken my children away, and I would never have seen them again.

Basically the entire history of “civilization,” as we like to call it, has consisted of masses of poor, ill-nourished people, subsisting on cheap calories, laboring to support a small predatory elite. Instant ramen is just one link in a long, long chain. 


*According to the "Nutrition Facts" on the back of Nissin's Top Ramen package, one ramen block plus all the seasoning equals two full servings. So unless you only eat half a block and half the seasoning (and who does that??) you have to double the nutrition numbers. Nissin doesn't break down the sodium in the seasoning vs. in the noodles, but I'm sure it's mostly in the former. 

**7 grams vs. 4 grams.

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