ASIA July 2019
 
Instant Noodles need to be healthy to retain its popularity
 
In Asia, instant noodles have always been a favourite pastime and in many occasions, a convenient replacement for meals especially for the busy lifestyle consumers.
With the growing health conscious movement enveloping throughout every corners of Asia, instant noodle manufacturers may now need to reformulate their instant noodle products into something ‘healthier’ otherwise they might just degenerate into obscurity in the medium term future.
Instant noodles have always been a staple food for Asian manual laborers and students as they can be easily prepared in few minutes and ready-to-eat after pouring hot water in the cup.
With so many brands in the market, we can also safely consider this industry as one of the most fiercely competitive food and beverage segment in this region. In Thailand, there is Mama brand whereas Korea has Nongshim and Samyang Foods; in Indonesia, Indomie dominates the market whereas in Singapore and Malaysia, Nestle dominates the market with its Maggi brand. According to the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA), 10 of the top 15 markets for instant noodles are in Asia (see Chart 1.0). South Korea leads in per capita consumption at 74.6 servings per year, followed by Vietnam and Nepal.
Despite the ongoing huge popularity of instant noodles, many Asian consumers are getting more well-informed to know that instant noodles contain a high amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a controversial ingredient often associated as being ‘unhealthy’.
MSG is basically a stable salt formed from glutamic acid that could complement the 4 basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The negative image of MSG originated from the West in 1968, when New England Journal of Medicine associated MSG with a sickness relating to ‘numbness at the back of the neck coupled with general weakness and heart palpitations’ affecting a Chinese immigrant after consuming instant noodles. This negative report was then followed by a US psychiatrist research findings that ‘injecting large doses of MSG in mice led to development of dead tissues in its brain’. Nevertheless, many scientific research have been done on MSG including human trials, and most of the fear relating to instant noodles have been unfounded. The latest study done by FDA in 1995 concluded that MSG is safe for consumption except for those with serious asthma problems. Despite these efforts, the negative image relating to instant noodles and MSG continue to linger on. As such, instant noodle manufacturers are now introducing more instant noodles without using MSG, or healthier options with clear labelling on their products to attract consumers. In Thailand, for instance, Mama products bear labels confirming that its products also contain iron and vitamin A. Nissin Cup Noodles meanwhile shows that its original instant ramen in a cup has reduced the amount of sodium with no added ‘MSG or artificial flavours’. These marketing approaches seem to be working with customers.
The success of the instant noodle industry in the future depends on how fast the manufacturers adapt to meet challenging consumer taste and preferences from the use of less/no MSG, gluten-free, vegan/plant-based options, to the use of fresh (clean label) like freeze-dried meat and vegetables rather than artificial ingredients. So far, the new strategies seem to work as instant noodle consumption had grown in 2018 in 4 out of 5 top consuming countries in Asia. Instant noodles consumption seemed to have picked up in recent years after being stagnant for some time in many countries like China, Taiwan and Korea. Many instant noodle products in Asia have now moved their rank up higher from being known as just a ‘junk food’. Instant noodle manufacturers however must also ensure that the switch to ‘healthier’ options should not compromise the taste of their instant noodles and its convenience in terms of preparations. Consumers, particularly those in affluent city areas, can still absorb higher prices for the higher quality ingredients though in their instant noodles.
 
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