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Your yen for ramen could be killing you softly

Kenji Saito cooks at his ramen noodle shop in Tokyo.
Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoo
Ramen is delightful, but it might also be dangerous.
Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Ramen’s reputation has grown globally over the years. People worldwide now hungrily slurp down countless bowls of these skinny noodles in hot broth that originated in China and were popularized by the Japanese. But a recent study out of Japan indicates the savory treat could be a killer.

A paper published in Nutrition Journal investigated the link between the prevalence of ramen restaurants and stroke and heart attack mortality in Japanese prefectures. The researchers from Jichi Medical University suspected that ramen, which is high in sodium, might be linked to higher risk of strokes and heart attacks. But little was known about the relationship between diet and these health woes in Japan, they write, so they decided to compare various types of cuisine and different regions of the country, looking at health data and restaurant prevalence.

The scientists created four categories of restaurants to compare—ramen, fast food, French or Italian, and udon or soba. They also obtained age- and sex-adjusted stroke and heart attack mortality rates in each prefecture from a 2017 national study. What they discovered is that ramen-loving localities where the noodle shops are especially prevalent experienced more stroke deaths than other Japanese prefectures, but not more heart attacks.

The researchers found that the Tohoku, northern Kanto, and the southern Kyushu regions have higher stroke mortality than other areas in Japan. Meanwhile, the Kinki region and southern Kanto region have low stroke mortality rates. This stroke mortality distribution corresponded approximately with the prevalence of ramen restaurants in these regions. “The prevalence of ramen restaurants in Japanese prefectures has a significant correlation with the stroke mortality rate,” the study concluded.

Still, before you despair and give up ramen altogether, the study’s limitations should be noted. The researchers themselves say that they were unable to obtain precise data on stroke victims’ diets, so they could not directly assess whether ramen intake increased stroke risk but simply established a link to be further explored.

They point out that ramen consumption isn’t restricted to restaurants and they didn’t consider instant or homemade ramen at all. Also, ramen has many components, including soy, tonkotsu (a Japanese broth made from simmered pork marrow or pork bone), miso, and salt, and it’s not yet clear which most strongly affects stroke risk. Finally, there’s the fact that ramen shops serve more than just noodles in hot broth. Side dishes like dumplings and rice are also available. “These side dishes may include confounding nutritional factors,” the scientists write.

So though their work indicates that ramen may be killing people softly, much more research needs to be done to establish the link between the dish, which seems so nutritious and life-giving, and increased risk of death.

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