National / Media | Japan Pulse

Japan's love of ramen tempered by mortality warning

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Slurping down a steaming hot bowl of ramen is a great way to warm the soul on a cold winter’s day but overindulging in the dish could prove deadly, a British medical paper has warned.

In a paper published on BioMed Central in September, three Japanese researchers from the Jichi Medical University School of Medicine in Tochigi Prefecture found a direct link between the prevalence of ramen restaurants and stroke mortality in certain parts of the country.

Following up on this issue, the Asahi Shimbun said that Tochigi, Akita, Aomori, Yamagata, Niigata and Kagoshima prefectures — all famed for their ramen offerings — were by far the worst offenders.

The newspaper also noted that households in these regions were also more likely to use more salt, which causes high blood pressure.

According to a survey conducted by the General Affairs Agency, Yamagata Prefecture consumes more salt than any other part of the country.

Although this report has the potential to affect Japan’s love of ramen, social media was awash with comments from people who appeared more likely to go into denial than give up slurping down a bowl of noodles on a regular basis.

Several hard-core ramen lovers shared their harrowing experiences online — instant diarrhea, acute indigestion and sleeplessness, to name a few — but none of these people appeared to be put off the dish.

It’s almost as if many feel they’ve come all this way without experiencing any major health issues so far, so how close can a stroke really be?

For decades, many Japanese have known that ramen certainly doesn’t do the body any favors. Ramen noodles are high in gluten and sugar, and the broth typically includes a metaphorical ton of MSG and saturated fat. It’s a deadly combination, not just to one’s internal organs but to one’s brain as well. Eaten regularly, ramen has even been linked to dementia.

Yet, we persist, for reasons none of us fully understand. History might have something to do with it.

Before World War II, ramen was called shinasoba (Chinese noodles) and was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today.

In the 1950s, however, the number of people operating ramen carts surged across Japan as the nation struggled to recover from malnutrition during the Occupation.

At the time, ramen was a quick hunger fix — it was easy to make and consume, with the whole process taking no more than 10 minutes.

In 1958, Momofuku Ando unveiled the world’s first instant ramen noodles, a meal that  fueled Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s. After Ando’s company, Nissin Foods Inc., unveiled the Cup Noodle (dried noodles and soup in a disposable cup), the styrofoam buckets started to traverse the globe, appearing on tables from Toronto to Baghdad. The story of Ando’s life was even turned into an NHK drama series, “Manpuku,” which aired in 2018 and was extremely popular with ramen fans.

The latest news on the ramen front, however, is not great.

Bloggers are reporting that some of their favorite ramen restaurants are shutting down because the owners and staff are suffering health problems.

Making and serving ramen is hard work. Shop owners routinely work 12-hour days and some claim that if the hours don’t affect them, the labor-intensive nature of making the noodles will.

What’s more, breathing in fumes from meat and fish stock for long periods of time can trigger cancer cells and could induce a stroke.

In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, professor Tomonori Okamura of Keio University advises ramen restaurants to curb their sugar and salt usage, while recommending that consumers top off their dishes with bean sprouts and other vegetables.

Apparently, it’s all about striking the right balance between mind-blowing deliciousness and proper nutrition.