Think of your favourite uncle. The one who brought joy to your life, swung you high in the air when you were a kid, brought you exciting gifts and filled your world with love and laughter. If many years later you discover an unpleasant truth about him—something that you vaguely suspected but were scared to confirm, like say, may be it is revealed that he forged documents and cheated your family of several valuable shares—how would you feel? I am guessing “disappointed” would come right up there. Followed by a sense of regret for being so trusting and having wasted so much emotion on that relationship. Well, here comes the gastronomical equivalent of the favourite uncle-expose.
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Instant noodles. A lot of us grew up with it. It was the preferred snack when we were kids returning home hungry from school or when we needed a midnight meal in the hostel or were rustling up quick meals in bachelor pads. It was comfort food. Like the favourite uncle, we associated it with warmth and good times and introduced our kids to it.
Instant noodles were invented in Japan by the founder of Nissin Foods, which produces the Top Ramen brand. To a Japan recovering from post-war food shortages, it was an inexpensive way to feed people. In the new century, however, there are increasing concerns over the poor nutritional value of this extremely popular food. The high sodium content is detrimental to blood pressure and kidney functioning. There are worries that even the packaging of Cup Noodles contains the toxic chemical dioxin which leaches into the hot water poured into it.
I remember in the early 1980s, there were dark whispers about Maggi containing mono sodium glutamate (MSG) which harms kids’ brains and gets them addicted to the taste. But it somehow died down. With the emergence of the Internet, this allegation that the spice powder of instant noodles contains MSG has arisen very strongly again on blogs and discussion forums from Malaysia to the US. “We advise not to add the flavour mix prior to pouring the boiling water in,” warned an official of the Taiwanese department of health on a health forum last year. “The spice mix contains glutamate that when heated over 100°C for longer than 10 minutes can lead to cancer or a slow poisoning of the nerve system.”
Nestle says on its website, that a misleading mail has been circulating for years and reassures consumers “We do not add MSG to Maggi noodles.” For this piece, I contacted Nestle’s spokesperson and asked whether Maggi contains MSG. “There is no added MSG”, said the email. Curious choice of words, I thought. Should consumers assume that MSG is contained in the raw material, but none has been added to the finished product? Wouldn’t it be simpler to say “No MSG” like a lot of junk food products proudly claim?
But the key issue—the favourite uncle’s betrayal—is really about trans fats. The manufacturing process of instant noodles involves rapidly drying steamed noodles by flash-frying them in oil. Drying by frying makes water vaporize quickly from the surface of the noodles and creates tiny holes through which water gets in when we open the packet and dunk the blocks in hot water. That’s why it takes just two minutes to cook. Therefore all instant noodles are deep fried. It is no wonder that they contain 15-18g of fat.
There is strong apprehension among consumers across the world that the fat components in instant noodles include trans fats, the result of partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Trans fatty acids are deadly artery cloggers and insulin resistors which doctors say must be scrupulously eliminated from our diet. Their presence increases a product’s shelf life while decreasing ours. Since about 2003-04, the awareness and concern over trans fat has grown exponentially across the world. Kraft, the producer of Oreo cookies, and McDonalds have been slapped law suits for using trans fat in their products and were forced to rectify this practice. The US Food and Drug Administration has made declaration of trans fat in product labels mandatory since 2006.
Indian regulation under the Food Safety and Standards of India requires food manufacturers using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to declare the presence of trans fats.
But—and here’s the fine print—unlike many Western countries, the mandatory declaration of trans fats in nutrition panels on the label is not yet there. So you have to put it on the label if you are a baker merrily using vanaspati ghee, but if you are not using hydrogenated oil, it s not necessary to mention “trans fat” in the label.
Yet, if you look around you, some very humble products such as vermicelli and rusk biscuits declare “trans fats: zero”. On the other end of the spectrum, international brands such as Lays chips boldly state the absence of trans fats on the packet. Those who don’t have it, flaunt the fact.
But the packages of Maggi and Foodles are oddly silent on trans fat. Nestle’s reason is that though Maggi does not contain trans fats, it is not mentioned in the packet “because it is not a legal requirement”.
I was a bit mystified by this response. For a product that’s announcing its health benefits all over the packaging—multigrain goodness, calcium and all alphabets of vitamins—the lack of trans fats should be shouted from the rooftops, normally. Why would it hide under a little legal loophole and avoid mentioning the T word altogether? Do write back and tell me if you find this as strange as I do. Meanwhile, I will deal with becoming unpopular with my nine-year-old daughter, and “all the kids of the world” as she threatened, for choosing this topic.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues.