A huge day for the culinary world came on 25 August 1958, when Japanese food company Nissin Foods released Chikin Ramen, a freeze-dried block of pre-seasoned ramen noodles that could be prepared in just a few moments. It was the world's first-ever instant noodle and, within five years, the Japanese giant was selling around 200 million servings annually. Not even the product's Taiwanese-Japanese inventor, Momofuku Ando, could have anticipated that level of demand.
What's astounding is that not only has this popularity endured, but it's not yet reached its peak. Corporate analysis firm Fortune Business Insights projects that the market will reach $72.7 billion by 2027, up from $44.1 billion in 2019. Today, according to the World Instant Noodles Association, instant noodles are produced in more than 90 countries and, in 2020, nearly 117 billion servings were consumed globally, which equates to roughly 15 per person. As a comfort food with a long shelf-life, demand picked up steam during the pandemic.
Recent growth has been fueled at least in part by convenience: hectic work schedules and a disrupted work-life balance go hand in hand with ready-to-eat products. Kevin Lee, co-founder of San Francisco noodle brand Immi, expects demand for noodles to rise as we transition into a post-Covid world. These products are also becoming affordable to more people, and with many countries undergoing rapid urbanization in recent years, there will be greater interest in international foods. In the US, in particular, rising demand for Asian cuisine has supported the popularity of instant noodles, says Kevin.
Health and sustainability
If the market for instant noodles is to follow this upward trajectory, healthier and more sustainable varieties are fundamental. Despite being fairly low in calories, traditional instant noodles are dehydrated to help maintain a long shelf life, which is often achieved through frying. They lack fiber and protein, not to mention important nutrients like vitamins A, C and B12; they're also high in fat, carbohydrates and sodium.
Their plastic packaging is also a huge source of waste, and all of this just doesn't cut it among younger generations, who are more attuned to the importance of a healthy, balanced diet and preserving the planet.
A slew of healthy instant noodle varieties has emerged, including Immi, whose noodles are high in protein and fiber, but low in carbs, making them suitable for keto diets. Meanwhile, NOODIE, a New York company founded by Isabel Khoo, has developed a spirulina-based, non-fried noodle that's accompanied by a seasoning cube containing kale, bok choy and broccoli. ‘The narrative around instant ramen has always been “low-quality” and “unhealthy”, but by using the latest technology from Japan, we're able to create a product that's good for you but tastes like it isn't,’ she says.
Similarly, the Future Noodles product, co-founded by London chef Carl Clarke, is plant-based, but it is also described as ‘nutritionally complete’: each serving has everything that your body requires. This does mean that the meals aren't low-carb, but they are free of MSG, palm oil and artificial flavorings; they even come with sachets that include 26 essential minerals and vitamins.
The push towards healthy instant noodles has prompted legacy brands, like Nissin, to respond with their own nutrient-rich takes, but they face a problem: instant noodles don't taste or feel as pleasant when they're not fried and lack sugar and salt. There's a ‘gap between expectation and reality’ when it comes to healthier varieties, says Jono Holt, Future Noodles' other co-founder, ‘and the brand that makes that gap as small as possible will fundamentally win.’
Some new noodle brands even offer ‘functionality’ – with added fiber, collagen and adaptogens. Today, it turns out, there's a noodle for everything.
Despite its size, the global market for instant ramen hasn't seen much innovation in decades, and it's still dominated by three Asian food conglomerates, namely Nissin, Toyo Suisan and Nongshim. But, as smaller brands grow, this stranglehold is going to weaken, opening the door to more and more independent companies and eventually a market that's more competitive.
‘When you're looking at such a large market, it's only a matter of time before upstart brands pick up pieces of that puzzle,’ says Kevin of Immi. ‘Maybe what we'll see is instant noodle brands that have different value propositions; some may choose not to be low-carb, but they may have higher protein; and some may choose to have different types of micro nutrients. That's the beauty of instant ramen: it's a strong base foundation and you can choose whatever type of topping or flavor.’
Comparisons, Jono believes, can be drawn to the craft beer market, where 15 years ago the UK industry, for example, was dominated by Heineken, Foster's, Carlsberg and Carling, but now there's an almost endless list of brands. ‘The change was driven by flavor,’ he says. ‘We're always going to want new, diverse varieties.’
NOODIE's Isabel believes that, as popularity grows for formats that are more nutritionally complete, we're also likely to view instant noodles more as a functional meal than a snack. ‘This product is at the intersection of multiple trends that ultimately lead to category expansion, so I'm expecting this category to boom,’ she says. ‘Similarly to how we think of oats as a steady meal consistently eaten for breakfast, instant noodles will become a staple of everyday cuisine.’