Instant noodles colonized Asia a generation ago, sweeping east to west from Japan to India, where Nestle’s Maggi sub-brand took off. The foodstuffs’ dominance stateside is a more recent phenomenon owed to the high price of higher ed and the growth of the urban poor. Now, courtesy of Zambian entrepreneur and future billionaire Monica Musonda, noodles are taking Africa by storm.
Those people were food scientists and they’ve long been obsessed with ramen’s potential to fill the cracks in the global food market. That potential is now being realized on a global scale and, yes, there are ramifications.
Back in 2013, Dr. Deborah Gewertz of Amherst College led an international team of food experts on an investigation of instant noodles past and future. She described the “protean food designed for quotidian consumption” as increasingly ubiquitous and capable of penetrating almost any market. It’s fairly remarkable that the prediction is coming true only a few years later as Musonda’s Java Foods takes Africa by storm and Maruchan runs riot through Central and South America. She and her colleagues predicted peak noodle hood based on two important facts.
1. Instant Noodles Are A Ration
Instant noodles were originally popularized in a post-WWII grappling with austerity. The noodles were a practical solution to increasingly dense settlements and limited resources. They were also very popular. It’s quite rare that something designed as a concession — by, in this case, the great Momofuku Ando — becomes a hit.
2. Instant Noodles Are A Canvas
As anyone who has ever gotten stoned in a dorm room knows, ramen doesn’t just come in one flavor. There are tons of conceivable possibilities and an impressive number of them have already been explored, largely in Japan but also in India. The foodstuff has a universally acceptable mouthfeel, but its flavor needs to be manipulated to suit different markets.
What makes it so easy to manipulate instant noodle flavors? The ingredients that popularized the stuff: Salt and Monosodium glutamate. The human body craves salt and MSG, well, it simulates meat consumption courtesy of a few well-placed amino acids. This is why instant noodles are delicious and also why the flip side of instant noodles’ success is a completely understandable concern for public health.
But they are food, they are affordable, and people want to eat them. What that means for future cities is fairly obvious: There will be a lot of instant noodles and a lot of poor people with blood pressure issues. The question isn’t whether or not the noodles will change to keep more people healthy (they likely will in wealthy countries and won’t in poor countries), but how governments and hospitals will respond to the particular public health issues they present. In America, we have a sense of how increased salt intake effects a poor population. But, in Africa, McDonald’s is considered an expensive treat. Instant noodles will deliver a similar kick in the gut.
Yet instant noodles also represent a health opportunity. There are few products that are popular across classes, creeds, races, countries, and every other damn thing. Because instant noodles fall into this elite category of unobjectionable foodstuffs, they present governments and corporations with the opportunity to dose massive numbers of people with chemicals. This sounds frightening (and it should, just look at Maggi’s current recall), but could be enormously helpful in the event of an epidemic. Mass distribution of ingestibles can be a public good as well as a public bad.
Still, we’re probably years away from ramen being used as a tool by epidemiologists. For now, the food scientists are the ones watching nervously. They predicted this, but that might not ease their fears.