Home-cooked food used to be irreplaceable among Vietnamese. Especially at dinner, the whole family gathers for a sumptuous meal, usually with rice, meat, fish, vegetable soup, and fresh greens. But over the years, as lifestyles evolved and Vietnamese moved at a faster pace, sitting down for a proper meal was no longer part of the routine.
Many turned to instant noodles — cheap, conveniently packed, ubiquitous, and flavorful goodness that can be eaten by just adding boiling water. Found in all convenience stores and supermarkets, and even on sidewalks, a packet or cup of mì gói satisfies the hunger of those always on the go. To many, it’s survival food amidst hurried life.
A new report from UK-based market research firm Euromonitor revealed that in 2021, Vietnam consumed more than 1,120 tons of instant noodles daily or about 411,500 tons the whole year. This has also resulted in an increase in sales, surpassing $153 million, up 11% from 2020.
There are currently about 50 instant noodle companies in Vietnam, but Euromonitor noted that Japanese food company Acecook and local enterprise Masan accounted for 33% of the total market share for instant noodles. Acecook’s Hao Hao retained its position as the most preferred noodle brand.
Acecook reported increasing revenues, pointing out the large and growing consumer base in the country. It saw its revenue climb to VND 12.2 trillion last year from VND10 trillion in 2019. Masan, meanwhile, said its revenue reached over VND2 trillion from each of its two instant noodle brands.
Separate data from the World Instant Noodles Association magnified the instant noodle obsessions in Vietnam. Vietnam is now the world’s top consumer of instant noodles per capita, outpacing South Korea. Consumption rose steadily from 55 servings per person in 2019 to 87 in 2021.
“COVID-19 lockdowns and inflation both point to why people keep coming back for instant noodles,” the Japan-headquartered association explained.
Vietnam experienced long periods of lockdown in 2021, mainly in the second and third quarters of the year, when coronavirus infections were surging. The lack of access to wet markets and loss of income drove many to the most affordable options, like instant noodles.
While Vietnam tops domestic consumption per capita, it falls in third place — next to China and Indonesia — in total volume.
Tom ChuaCay flavor (a mixture of shrimp and acidic flavors) is the most popular flavor, and Vietnamese people prefer noodles with elasticity. They also add onions, lemons, and peppers to cooked instant noodles. In addition to flour noodles, many products use pho rice noodles, which is unique to Vietnam, the World Instant Noodles Association wrote.
Health risks of a quick-fix meal
Instant noodles are affordable and convenient, but they have often been criticized as a meal devoid of nutrients.
Typical ingredients in the noodles include refined wheat (known to be stripped of nutrients like fiber and minerals), salt, and palm oil. According to Healthline, the flavoring packets generally contain salt, seasoning, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Most instant noodles are low in calories, fiber, and protein, with higher amounts of fat, carbs, sodium, and select micronutrients.
In 2019, when the consumption growth rate averaged 20%, UNICEF warned that the constant eating of instant noodles could put Vietnam’s children at risk of malnourishment. UNICEF indicated that the country had 1.8 million malnourished children, occupying a quarter of the total child population.
Moreover, instant noodles have also been found to increase one’s risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases your risk for heart and kidney disease, diabetes, and stroke.
“Although instant noodle is a convenient and delicious food, there could be an increased risk for metabolic syndrome given [the food’s] high sodium, unhealthy saturated fat and glycemic loads,” said Hyun Shin, Harvard School of Public Health doctoral candidate who co-authored a study on instant noodles’ health risks.
In fact, Vietnam-made instant noodles have recently been under the microscope after several EU member states warned that they contain high levels of ethylene oxide that exceeded EU limits. Germany was one of the first to detect EO on imported instant noodle products. Poland, meanwhile, returned the products to Ho Chi Minh City-based Vietnam Food Industries JSC (Vifon).
In August, Taiwan returned 1.44 tons of Vietnam’s Omachi instant noodles, saying they contain high levels of carcinogenic ethylene oxide. Taiwan’s food authority bans the substance as it’s considered to increase the risks of cancer and some neurological diseases.