Health-conscious Hongkongers eating instant noodles less often, like rest of world

Food safety scares and concerns about the snacks’ high fat and salt content have hit consumption, but instant noodles are still a food favourite, with fans in Asia but worldwide too

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2016, 6:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 1:52pm

There’s a standing order that Bosco Li Chun-yu makes whenever his brother makes one of his many trips to Japan: instant noodles.

“I always tell him, ‘You don’t need to get me any souvenirs, just go to a 7-Eleven or supermarket and get me a lot of different kinds of noodles’,” he says.

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Instant noodles are something of a comfort food in Hong Kong, the classic combination being a topping of fried egg and luncheon meat. But some Hongkongers like Li, a 29-year-old reporter at Commercial Radio, have acquired such a taste for the plethora of flavours now on offer, they’re happy to slurp down a bowl every couple of days.

To Ting’s passion started as a childhood love for cup noodles, the type packed in foam or cardboard containers.

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“Because my family cooks at home, I would only get to eat them when I go to a friend’s place, and we’d hide in the kitchen and eat cup noodles. That’s how I developed a taste for them,” To says.

As a university student, the 25-year-old was sufficiently hooked to try to sample every brand and flavour she could get from supermarkets.

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Instant noodles are such a part of Hong Kong culture it has become a cliché for characters in local TV dramas to express their affection by offering to cook some noodles.

But after decades of growth, the global market for instant noodles may have peaked.

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In Hong Kong, Li says fewer of his friends now eat them because of health concerns. Likewise, To now only eats instant noodles when friends bring back exotic flavours from Japan, or when she goes camping or gets hungry in the office (her attempt at sampling stopped after about 10 because she recognised they weren’t good for her).

These changing habits help explain a slide in demand: according to the World Instant Noodles Association, consumption in 2015 fell for the first time in three years, from 105 billion servings worldwide in 2013 to 97 billion servings in 2015.

Norio Sakurai, the association’s deputy chief executive, says manufacturers are worried.

“The consumption of instant noodles grew quite well during the 1990s, but now…the market is a bit saturated.”

Sakurai attributes slowing demand largely to what he calls baseless myths about food safety.

There has been some unwelcome publicity in recent years. In 2013, several food companies in Taiwan, including the popular instant noodle maker Master Kong, were found to have been using cooking oil containing banned additives. Nestle India’s Maggi noodles were temporarily banned in 2015 after samples were found to contain too much lead. Later tests found noodle samples to be safe for human consumption, but sales took a hit.

Sakurai says manufacturers can counter such claims by opening up their plants for public tours – as companies in China and Japan have done – so that consumers can see how noodles are made.

Many Hongkongers are consuming fewer instant noodles because of health concerns over high sodium levels in the flavouring packets and their fat content (strands of noodle dough are first steamed and then usually dehydrated by flash frying).

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However, Sakurai says manufacturers now make air-dried and baked instant noodles for more health-conscious consumers, and are also working towards reducing the sodium content.

That’s proving particularly difficult, though, because consumers simply don’t find low-salt noodles as tasty, he says. Nongshim, the South Korean company that makes the spicy Shin Ramyun noodles, and Nestle/Maggi, have reduced the sodium in their products by about 30 per cent compared to a few years ago.

In any case, Sakurai shrugs off health worries, saying that he eats instant noodles almost every day. Moreover, he adds, Momofuku Ando, the late inventor of instant noodles, ate more of his product than anyone else and lived to the age of 96.

“[Ando] would often say he himself is the living evidence for the safety of instant noodles,” Sakurai says.

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Instant noodles are still eaten in vast quantities around the world. Not surprisingly, China, the world’s most populous nation, accounts for the biggest share of consumption, downing more than 40 billion servings in 2015.

However, in terms of consumption per head of population, South Korea is in the lead, with each citizen eating 76 packs a year. Vietnam comes second, with 55.1 packs of instant noodles consumed per person per year, Indonesia third and Thailand fourth.

Sakurai says instant noodles are popular worldwidebecause people can add whatever toppings they like to make the noodles their own. And, as with other foods, manufacturers develop flavouring to suit regional tastes.

Finicky noodle lovers also have their own ways of cooking their favourite food. According to one blogger, the noodles should be fished out of the flavoured broth after boiling for just two minutes, fanned to slow the cooking, and then returned to the hot soup just before eating.

Lum Chun-yip and his family has made such individual takes on this fast food part of their business. The 51-year-old owner of Lan Fong Yuen, a popular restaurant in Hong Kong’s Central district that started as a dai pai dong, or street food stall, is known for its lo mein, or mixed instant noodles. The dish consists of cooked and drained Nissin Demae Itcho noodles, served with a fried chicken fillet, soy sauce, chopped spring onions and vegetables.

Lum says his family tried many kinds of instant noodles from supermarkets 20 years ago before settling on the Nissin brand. But he found that eating noodles with the broth made him really thirsty. They came up with the current combination after several months of experimenting and they now serve hundreds of plates every day.

Although Chinese consumers eat more than nine times the amount of instant noodles as Americans, one of the public faces of instant noodle fandom is Hans Lienesch. The 41-year-old American is known as the Ramen Rater because he samples and ranks instant noodles from around the world, producing a rating of his favourites each year.

In a way, instant noodles introduced him to other cultures.

One of Lienesch’s most memorable experiences came from an Asian grocery store as a child in Seattle.

“I grew up in a small fishing town in the Northwest of the United States. It was all white people, there wasn’t anything exotic, and anything that was different I immediately gravitated towards,” he recalls. “When I saw instant noodles from all these different countries, they were affordable and there were ways to try different flavours; it was kind of for me, kind of travelling without moving, through my taste buds… it was really a big turning point in my life when we went to that store.

When I saw instant noodles from all these different countries ... it was kind of for me, kind of travelling without moving, through my taste buds
Hans Lienesch, the Ramen Rater

“The old store was always really noisy and there’d be this announcement buzzer that would go off, and somebody would be speaking in Japanese … you can smell the fresh seafood and vegetables everywhere. The (instant noodle) aisle was really colourful. I remember my sister described it as like Fourth of July … all the different colours of the packaging, kind of like their own fireworks.”

Lienesch started a website rating instant noodles in 2002 and reckons he has now tried more than 2,000 different kinds, releasing reviews and various top 10 lists – of packet noodles, cup noodles and the spiciest noodles – every year. This year’s No. 1 packet noodle title went to Singapore brand Prima’s Laksa Wholegrain La Mien.

The Ramen Rater has become so famous among noodle fans, the Malaysian manufacturer MyKuali put his logo on a billboard across the Penang Bridge after he gave their product a good review. In fact, after he put two kinds of noodles on his annual top 10 list, consumers bought so much of them that manufacturers had difficulty keeping up with supply.

Some companies invited him to visit their plants in Thailand and Malaysia. Soon he’ll be visiting a company in the US to try a new kind of seasoning with 40 per cent less sodium.

Lienesch says after years of eating various types of instant noodle around the world, he is now “fluent in instant noodle,” which means he knows enough of the various Asian languages to figure out how to cook the noodles and distinguish brand names from other words.

He doesn’t eat as many instant noodles as he used to because of the sodium and fat content, but he says one of his achievements has been getting fellow Americans to explore Asian grocery stories.

“I get e-mails from people saying, ‘Thank you so much for your website, I would have had no idea about all these different instant noodles or all these different things you could add to them like Chinese sausage and fish ball’.”