The Scenario: It's the end of the month. Your days of ordering poké bowls are long gone. You roll around on the mattress in your kost, wondering what to have for dinner. You don't feel like buying Indonesian food at the warteg, but you're also broke as fuck.
You rummage through the cabinet of the small kitchen you share with your kost-mates. To your delight, it's filled with tiny plastic bricks of instant noodles. You take one, start boiling the water, and dump the seasoning packets into a bowl. You cook the noodles. Ten minutes later, you're done. Turns out you didn't need to buy anything for dinner after all.
The scenario repeats itself the rest of the week. But for how long? After all, you've heard all kinds of horror stories about instant noodles—that they make you stupid, they cause appendicitis, or even worse: cancer. Is any of it true?
The Facts: There's one main reason that people think instant noodles are so bad for your health: ingredient number E621, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate (MSG)—the main "flavor enhancer" of all processed food in Asia. But others also believe that the noodles themselves are dangerous because of an alleged wax coating that can damage your digestive tract.
So is MSG bad for your health? Not at all. The US Food and Drug Administration said that MSG was safe for consumption—and this is in a country that is so afraid of MSG that Chinese takeouts routinely advertise "NO MSG" on their menus. In the 1960s, when Chinese food was first spreading across the United States, diners started to complain that all the MSG was causing numbness and headaches. The press quickly dubbed the phenomenon "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" but, in reality, there was no such thing.
And MSG itself isn't always an additive. It's naturally found in cheese and tomatoes. MSG is a chemical in the same way that water and oxygens are chemicals, according to an expert quoted by the Guardian. Today, MSG is often used as a "supersalt"—an additive that gives food umami instead of just saltiness.
So where did the cancer myth come from in the first place? I called up Della Rachmadia Annur, a nutritionist at the Prawijaya Women and Children's Hospital, to try to figure out why people think instant noodles cause cancer.
"Instant noodles can trigger cancer cells to be active, but so does all processed food—stuff like corned beef and chicken nuggets," Della told me. "Both the noodles and the packets of flavouring contain preservatives, which means that they contain a large amount of sodium. Instant noodles can be dangerous for people who already have diabetes or high blood pressure, but it definitely does not directly cause cancer, especially on its own."
The same thing can be said about the "wax coating." Instant noodle companies say they don't coat their noodles with wax and numerous nutritionists agree, although even if they did, it wouldn't really cause a problem. Plenty of fruits and vegetables contain wax on their skin too and no one argues that apples give you cancer.
The worst that will happen: Well, instant noodles might not give you cancer, but that doesn't mean they're healthy either. One study found that the regular consumption of instant noodles can cause high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body far, and abnormally high levels of cholesterol. The same is true for all foods that are high in sodium and saturated fats.
In 2009, a young boy made headlines when his intestines started to leak after eating too much instant noodles. The boy was "addicted," his parents said, and the press quickly blamed his poor health on the over-consumption of instant noodles.
But doctors later explained that it wasn't the noodles that really caused the problems. It was the fact that the boy wasn't eating anything else. He had replaced fruits, vegetables, and proteins with instant noodles (processed carbs) and his digestive system went haywire.
"Instant noodles take longer to digest than other sources of carbohydrates, like rice and potatoes," Della told VICE. "When you feel bloated after eating instant noodles, it's because your system is working hard to digest it. Worst case scenario, all the carbohydrates from instant noodles can cause a buildup of sugar in your body, causing diabetes."
What will probably happen: I found Adit, an instant noodle enthusiast who has eaten pre-packaged noodles every single day for years. So what happens to your body when you're eating a steady diet of instant mie goreng? Constipation, mostly, he said. Well that and stomach pains. One time a doctor told Adit that he had inflamed his intestines. But despite feeling ill, Adit continued to eat instant noodles. Although he is trying to cut back, limiting himself to a bowl or two a week.
"Usually when I would get a stomach ache, I would stop eating for a day or two," he told VICE. "I normally stop for a week at most, eat a lot of bananas, and then continue eating instant noodles."
So stomach aches are pretty bad. But that's still a far way from cancer.
What to do: If you can afford it, then don't eat instant noodles every day. Eating instant noodles every single day might not cause cancer, but it can still eventually lead to something that necessitates a trip to the hospital. And then you're just blowing more money than you would've spent on healthier foods in the first place.
But what if you love just noodles? Make your own at home. The key to staying healthy isn't always eating salads all the time. It can also be as simple as cooking with fresh ingredients like chicken and vegetables.
If it sounds like too much hassle, then go ahead and continue to eat instant noodles, but balance it out with other more nutritious foods like lean meats and fresh veggies. That way you don't have to feel bad about the occasional bowl of Indomie because you're not eating garbage all the time.
But you know, we're not the food police. You want to keep downing bowl after bowl of instant soto mie, then be our guest. Just proceed with caution.