The phenomenon of instant noodles and MSG

As the backlash against monosodium glutamate comes to a boil, a good look at the product itself – and at the phenomenon of instant noodles, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Updated on Jun 29, 2015 01:20 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Boil, simmer and chow it down: The instant noodle is now best known for sustaining college students and the nerds who started the IT revolution. (Photos: Shutterstock)

If you asked most Indians to define Japanese food, they would probably answer with reference to examples: “Like raw fish, right?” Or “Sushi and sashimi”. Or even, “Those teriyaki things.” Ask when Japanese food came to India and they will talk about the arrival of sushi to our shores over a decade ago.

Well, they are right – at least, sort of. But they have also missed the point. The greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century, according to the Japanese themselves, got here much before sushi. And it is about a million times more popular than sushi in India.

I refer, of course, to the instant noodle. We don’t see it as a Japanese dish because the most popular brand in India is Maggi, owned by the Swiss multinational Nestlé. But it is a Japanese invention. When the Japanese people were polled about their most important 20th century invention, they forgot about karaoke or the Walkman. It was the instant noodle that was the clear winner.

If you don’t think the instant noodle is Japan’s most successful food export to India, then there’s a second contender: Ajinomoto or monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as it is often abbreviated.

You may think of Ajinomoto as something that people put into chop suey. But you would be wrong. First of all, it is a Japanese invention and is not Chinese in origin. And secondly, Chinese restaurants form a tiny component of Ajinomoto’s market share. It is used by restaurants and fast food outlets across all categories. And more and more Indian restaurants and street-food vendors are also using it.

In Japan, the inventor of instant noodles, Momofuku Ando, is venerated as a national hero. When Mr Ando died in 2007 at the age of 96, glowing obituaries filled the papers and he rated major stories in such publications as

The New York Times


The Economist


The Japanese glossed over the fact that he was not Japanese at all. He was a Taiwan-born Chinese who only moved to Japan when he was in his twenties. But he quickly adopted a Japanese name and rarely referred to his Chinese origins.

These days, Mr Ando is largely forgotten outside of Japan. Even the millions who eat the instant noodles he created have no clue who he was. In the US, the word ‘Momofuku’ only conjures up the trendy Momofuku mini-chain of restaurants.

David Chang, the Korean-American who started the chain, has conceded that he chose the name as a tribute to Mr Ando. But then he has also said, on other occasions, that he liked the word Momofuku because it sounded like a certain English abuse. So who knows?

Though the instant noodle is now best known for its role in sustaining college students and in providing nutrition (well, kind of) to the nerds who started the IT revolution, Mr Ando did not intend his invention to be a poor man’s food.

His breakthrough came when he discovered that if he flash-fried noodles he could dehydrate and pack them. These noodles could be reconstituted in hot water in two minutes. He sold them first at grocery stores, at prices that were higher than those of fresh noodles, arguing that consumers should pay extra for the convenience that came from easy cooking.

That was in 1958, when Japan was moving away from its artisanal traditions and embracing the white heat of the technological revolution in an effort to rebuild itself in the post-War era. But eventually, Mr Ando had the brains to realise that this was a mass product.

Prices were lowered and instant noodles spread all over the world. In 1971, he added a new refinement: the pot noodle. This consisted of a Styrofoam cup with dried noodles. You poured water from a kettle and your meal (well, sort of meal) was ready in a minute or so.

Mr Ando spoke about the success of instant noodles in India, arguing that he had been clever in choosing chicken as his base meat because beef or pork would have alienated sections of the population. He might have added that he had overturned centuries of culinary history.

India is one of the few countries in the world to have no noodles and no pasta. (Vermicelli or seviyan came from abroad). Not till masala-flavoured instant noodles caught on did the Indian mainstream have any time for noodles.

Are all instant noodles unsafe? No. Though, as

The Economist

pointed out in its obituary of Mr Ando, few people bothered to discover that an average bowl of Cup/Pot Noodles contained eight noodles of 16 inches each, cut in perfect uniformity. Nor did consumers read the list of ingredients: “Wheat Flour, Tocopherols (palm oil), Tapioca Starch, Salt, Dehydrated Vegetables, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate,” etc.

Doesn’t sound very appetising, does it? But it is easy to make. And chemicals are cheaper than real food. Plus it has MSG.

Ah, MSG! The ingredient that has made food safety officials so upset. Five years ago, I was part of a delegation (along with super chef Sanjeev Kapoor, food writer Antoine Lewis and others) to Tokyo. We were there at the invitation of the Ajinomoto company, which was very agitated by the bad rap that MSG was getting in India and wanted to set the record straight.

First, they told us the story of MSG. Kikunae Ikeda was a Japanese scientist who argued that certain Western foods (tomatoes, cheese, etc) shared a taste element with some Japanese foods (shiitake mushrooms, soya sauce, etc). This taste element, he said, was a basic taste (like sweet, salty, etc) called umami.

In hot water: If it can be conclusively demonstrated that Maggi contained high levels of lead, then that’s a serious matter. It will do enormous damage to the whole instant noodle industry (Photo: Vidya Subramanian)

In 1908, Ikeda isolated the umami component of Japanese seaweed and found it was a substance called glutamic acid. Ikeda gave his research to a Japanese firm, which began commercial production of glutamic acid under the brand name Ajinomoto.

If you added glutamic acid to food, it added an umami heft (a meatier taste) and soon the product became an essential cooking ingredient all over the Far East (China, Thailand, etc). Later, others also began manufacturing it and the product got a generic name: monosodium glutamate or MSG.

All went well till the 1970s, when American doctors found anecdotal evidence of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, where people who went to Chinese restaurants often had headaches and tingling in parts of the body. That scare not only finished off MSG in America but also made people in the West feel that MSG was dangerous.

Ajinomoto spent millions on research and claimed that a) MSG was entirely natural – these days it is extracted from natural carbohydrates like tapioca. And b) that because it occurs in the human body (there are glutamates in mother’s milk) it has no effect on the immune system. So you cannot be allergic to it.

This is half true. You can have an MSG-intolerance, which leads to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome symptoms even if you can’t have an allergy. But only a small proportion of people have that intolerance and it usually only kicks in when vast quantities of MSG are consumed.

Besides, most of us eat MSG nearly every day without realising it. It turns up in all kinds of packaged food, stock cubes and the like. It is regularly used at Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Indian restaurants. Even when the menu says “No MSG”, there is MSG in the food because it turns up in pre-packaged ingredients and sauces.

So is it surprising that there is MSG in instant noodles? Not at all; no matter what the companies manufacturing the noodles might claim.

The vast majority of Ajinomoto’s sales in India are to the food business. If MSG turns up in everything, then why shouldn’t it turn up in a Japanese product like instant noodles?

In Tokyo, angry Ajinomoto executives complained to us about a large multinational which had a large chunk of the Indian food market. Apparently the multinational had taken to writing “No MSG” on one of its products. “That is fine”, they said. “But why don’t they mention that they buy so much MSG from us?”

Are Maggi’s instant noodles guilty of all the things that the government is claiming? Frankly, I don’t know. Maggi (and its parent Nestlé) is entitled to the benefit of the doubt till any charges are conclusively proven. But I do know that the claims about MSG in noodles will scare off people who don’t realise that there is MSG in nearly everything these days.

As for lead, that’s another matter. Excessive levels of lead are toxic. And if it can be conclusively demonstrated that Maggi contained high levels of lead, then that’s a serious matter. It will do enormous damage to the whole instant noodle industry. (Not to mention the damage to Nestlé’s reputation!) And the controversy is already a huge blot on Mr Ando’s legacy!

From HT Brunch, June 14
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