Okay, so it’s time to admit it. For a long period of college, I subsisted almost entirely on ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Ramen is cheap, filling, and versatile. You can add meat to it, add frozen veggies to it, dress it up or down. It’s also super tasty and addictive.
But after my Real Food conversion, ramen could no longer be my go-to choice for a quick lunch. It was packed with MSG, artificial colors and flavors, deep fried noodles, you name it. It’s been years since I’ve eaten it.
And then, a reader emailed me asking about a “natural” ramen she’d found at her supermarket that’s made with organic noodles. It’s called KOYO Asian Vegetable Ramen.
Here’s what the manufacturer claims:
“The Koyo Ramen Noodles are crafted from freshly milled organically grown heirloom wheat. They are pre-cooked, and baked not fried. They do not contain any Additives, Preservatives or MSG. Authentic Asian flair for today’s modern lifestyle.”
KOYO Asian Vegetable Ramen: Ingredients
- organic heirloom wheat flour
- sea salt
- natural sea salt
- Chinese mushroom powder
- vegetable powders (onion and garlic)
- natural cane sugar
- chili pepper
- snow peas
- sweet red bell pepper
- green onion
- black pepper
- kombu powder
KOYO Asian Vegetable Ramen: DECODED
First, let’s take a moment to appreciate that the base noodle is simply organic heirloom wheat flour and salt. Standard ramen noodles are made with enriched wheat flour, shaped into blocks, then deep fried in soybean oil, then dehydrated. And if that wasn’t enough, they then add preservatives to the dehydrated noodle. KOYO noodles are as natural as they come — no preservatives, no frying, just dehydrated noodles like any other you’d buy.
That said, they are still made from wheat flour that hasn’t been properly, traditionally prepared through sprouting or fermenting. And, many of you may simply want to be avoiding wheat, period (organic heirloom variety or not).
Then, as we move into the ingredients, we get a long list of things I actually — at this very moment — have in my pantry. Natural sea salt instead of industrially-created iodized table salt? Check. Vegetable powders like onion, garlic, and mushroom to add depth of flavor without texture? Check. Spices like garlic, chili pepper, ginger, and black pepper? Check.
Are these organic? No. Do I care? Not really. As I’ve written before, when working with a limited budget, it’s important to prioritize buying organic, pasture-raised, wild-caught, etc. for the most nutrient-dense foods first. That means I’m going to prioritize organic, pasture-raised eggs, meats & dairy, fats, etc. above organic vegetables. And I’m certainly going to prioritize organic produce above organic spices. Of course, if my budget for a given month has wiggle room, I’ll choose the organic spice. But if it doesn’t, I’m not going to sweat it or berate myself for somehow failing to eat according to my ideals.
Next up we’ve got natural cane sugar. While this is most likely refined, it is also not likely to be GMO. If the label had simply said “sugar” instead, I might have given pause. But by specifying cane sugar when (to date) there are no GMO sugar cane crops, they’re giving themselves a pass.
Also, I should point out that while a truly natural, unrefined sweetener would be ideal, sugar is still sugar. In other words, the benefit of a natural sweetener like honey is that it has other benefits beyond simply supplying your cells with glucose. But that honey is still sugar. Even natural sweeteners need to be consumed in moderation!
And finally, we find kombu powder. Kombu is a traditional Japanese powder made from seaweed. It’s basically kelp that’s been dried and ground into a powder. It’s a great way to get seagreens into your diet (which are rich in iodine), and many traditional Asian inspired recipes may call for using it in place of salt.
Kombu is also a natural source of umami — a particular taste we associate with glutamates. You get umami from grilling mushrooms, cooking meats and bone broths, and yes — seagreens. In other words, it’s part of how we used to get incredible depth of flavor before we learned how to isolate MSG and use it as an additive. (Yes, MSG is dangerous.)
KOYO Asian Vegetable Ramen: THE VERDICT
I will confess I struggled with this for a long time. The only two negatives I find in this convenience food are: 1) refined flour, and 2) refined sugar. And yet on the other hand, the flour is at least from an organic, heirloom variety of wheat, and the sugar is at least from GMO-free sugar cane.
But I have to be honest. I have — and use — both of those things in my own kitchen from time to time. I keep the organic flour on hand for recipes where I need a pinch of flour and the texture of a whole grain would be unappealing, and I keep an organic, refined cane sugar on hand to feed my ferments (like kombucha). Are they ideal? No. But they’re useful.
And that’s the balance we have to strike, isn’t it? Ideals vs. convenience. I don’t have a large vegetable garden, so I pay local farmers and growers to grow and harvest vegetables and fruits for me. And sometimes, I don’t stick to what’s local to me. I’ll buy in-season produce from the supermarket when I’m in a pinch. I don’t have access to raw cream (unless I separate it from my milk, which I am loathe to do), so I don’t routinely churn my own butter. Instead, I buy grass-fed butter made from pasteurized cream at the store. I don’t have a local farmer that makes hot dogs from grass-fed cows, so I buy store-bought organic hot dogs made with beef from grass-fed cows.
In all these cases, I’m paying for convenience and slightly compromising my ideals. KOYO Asian Vegetable Ramen has a lot going for it — no artificial colors, no preservatives, no refined vegetable oils, no GMOs, no hidden MSG. With that in mind, I think KOYO ramen can be a decent compromise convenience food.
Would I eat it all the time? No. Would I eat it sometimes? Feed it to my kids as a quick lunch when I’ve otherwise failed to get my act together? Yes.
Am I recommending that you eat it? No.
Let me be clear. Where we each draw our own compromise lines is entirely individual and based on our budgets, our lifestyle constraints, and our values. KOYO Asian Vegetable Ramen is not a health food.
But I also couldn’t in good conscience REJECT this food, either. That’s because I actually would eat it. In fact, I just bought a case of it online to stock my pantry for those desperate and rare times when I need a quick lunch and failed to plan ahead adequately.
Want Your Labels Decoded?
In this series on Decoding Labels, I’m highlighting deceptive labeling practices, hidden ingredients, and more! If you’ve got a particular label pet-peeve you’d like me to share, please feel free to email me with your idea. It may just turn into a blog post!