Explained: What Makes Korean Ramen So Delicious And Yet Dangerous

Recently, Danish authorities banned a brand of Korean noodles, citing the extremely high spice levels that could pose a risk of 'acute poisoning' to consumers, especially children and adults with health disorders.

Explained: What Makes Korean Ramen So Delicious And Yet Dangerous

Recently, Denmark, over safety concerns, recalled several ramen products manufactured by South Korean company Samyang. Reports say these noodles contain dangerously high levels of capsaicin, a compound found in chilli peppers. The three products pulled from the market included the Buldak 3x Spicy & Hot Chicken, the 2x Spicy & Hot Chicken, and Hot Chicken Stew. Danish authorities said the high spice levels could pose a risk of 'acute poisoning' to consumers, especially children and adults with health disorders.

Samyang has disputed these claims and said the spices in their ramen products were within acceptable limits. Nonetheless, Denmark's move is significant as it comes against the burgeoning popularity of Korean noodles across the world, including India. The controversy also brings to light cultural differences in spice tolerance and food habits.

Steeped In K-Culture

Korean culture started gaining popularity in India around 2020. That year, the Netflix viewership of K-dramas and K-pop had recorded a year-on-year jump of a whopping 370%. This coincided with a corresponding rise of 162% in the import of Korean food products.  According to data collected by consumer intelligence firm NielsenIQ, the size of the Korean noodles market surged multi-fold from Rs 2 crore in 2021 to over Rs 65 crore in 2023.

But what makes these noodles so popular? Some say it's ingredients like rice, noodles, vegetables, meat, sesame oil, chilli, pepper, soy, and spices. Common in both Korean and Indian cuisines, perhaps they make Korean food feel familiar to Indian consumers. 

Though originating in Japan, instant ramen has today come to be South Korea's soul food. It can be had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and prepared at home or ordered at restaurants. It can even be packed as a quick meal for long travels. According to the World Instant Noodle Association, a South Korean person consumes around 77 servings of instant noodles a year on average, second only to Vietnam at 85. 

The South Korean instant ramen is a spicy, flavourful alternative for people in countries whose traditional cuisines may be relatively less savoury. Recently, the stock price of Samyang Foods soared 70% after its Buldak carbonara ramen went viral on TikTok. The product became so popular in the US that shelves quickly went empty. In fact, a video that showed a young Texas girl receiving a multi-pack of Buldak carbonara ramen as a birthday gift amassed 14 million views and 2.7 million likes within 22 hours. Even celebrities like Cardi B wanted a taste of Buldak, whose products are exported to as many as 40 countries. 

But doctors caution against the risks of consuming extremely spicy foods, especially packaged products like instant ramen. "In a country where people struggle with metabolic disorders from an early age, these instant foods should be either avoided or be an occasional treat only. Reading the ingredients on the back label will open your eyes to the fact that nothing in them is good for your health. Additives, preservatives, colours, flavours, emulsifiers, etc, can pose long-term risks," says Dr Shalini Singhal, a nutritionist who runs a diet and wellness clinic in Delhi.

Capsaicin, a common component in many global cuisines, can lead to inflammation and irritation in the digestive tract if consumed in high quantities, resulting in symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting. "Ramen noodles contain carbohydrates and are poor in fibre or protein. The noodles also have high salt content, and all these can lead to nutritional problems like weight gain. Salt could cause high blood pressure. Lacking in protein, instant ramen also does not satiate your hunger and can lead to overeating and obesity. Excess spice in any food is a gastric irritant, causing a host of problems like hyperacidity, gastritis and acid reflux," says Dr Anirban Chatterjee, senior gastroenterologist and hepatologist, CMRI and Woodlands Hospital, Kolkata. Health experts point out that consuming instant noodles two or more times a week is associated with cardiometabolic syndrome, increasing the likelihood of developing high triglycerides and suffering heart disease, diabetes, or stroke.

While governments and regulatory authorities in many countries are now waking up to the risks, India has yet to act. Beyond legal safeguards, what's important is that consumers themselves make informed decisions about their dietary habits and prioritise their health and well-being.