Taiwan's Beef About Noodles

Earlier this year, the Taiwanese government's Consumer Protection Commission set up a press conference in which an attractive female staffer ripped open a packet of instant noodles, poured in boiling water, then started slurping the noodles. Immediately after, the cameramen were told to focus on the contents of the bowl. In drastic contrast to what was depicted on the packaging, there were only traces of beef, shrimp or vegetables.

That appears to the case for a major segment of Taiwan's instant noodle industry, said to be worth an annual US$300 million. When asked, in the words the famed Wendy's Restaurants hamburger advert of a decade ago, "Where's the Beef?" which became a catchphrase across North America, there was no beef to show. Nor were there shrimp, vegetables or anything else despite deceptive advertising, tiny dried protein cubes and some flavoring.

Three months after the press conference, the consumer protectors appear to have finally achieved their objective. Taiwanese authorities have declared that from next year the common advertisement trickery featuring imaginary chunks of meat, seafood or vegetables will no longer be tolerated, putting a stop to practices by some producers who reportedly even went so far to print the "pictures shown are for reference purposes only" warning in the same color as the background on the label, rendering the warning invisible. The Taiwanese public has long complained of being cheated.

The largest player on the Taiwanese instant noodle market is the company Uni-President, which also runs Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Mister Donut and Carrefour in Taiwan. Half of the noodles sold in the country carry Uni-president's brand names: Tong-I Minced Pork Noodle, One More Cup, etc.

In an interview, Uni-President's Public Affairs Director Selina Wu acknowledged to Asia Sentinel that there could have been discrepancies between what was advertised and what was sold. She explains how the company intends to react to the new stricter packaging regulations. Uni-President's instant noodles come in two categories, she said. Ms. Wu expounds the company's strategy: "Our cheaper brands will have their packaging changed, but for the classier ones we have a different approach. There, we'll make the content match the advertisement, not the other way around."

The big question is how far the Taiwan noodle-producers' practices are replicated across Asia. Certainly in Hong Kong, the glistening packets of noodles that throng supermarket shelves bearing pictures of glistening prawns and hearty slices of beef contain neither glistening prawns nor hearty slices of beef. They do feature the words "Pictures Shown Are For Reference Purposes Only," but in letters so small they are virtually indiscernible.

The Taiwanese Consumer Protection Commission admittedly hasn't bothered checking Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese or Indonesian noodles widely sold in Taiwan. Chen Wu-Xiong who answered Asia Sentinel's call to the commission's office puts it this way: "Concerning the foreign noodles, we are powerless anyway. The trade agreements our government has with other Asian countries are just too complex to make an issue of instant noodles."

Regardless whether or not there is advertisement trickery, it is a fact that all over the region instant noodles have become a substitute for staple foods, usually with little nutritional value beyond the noodles, which is rare indeed. And rare is the Asian who doesn't eat them regularly. From highly-developed Japan and Korea to Indonesia where the average income is US$5.50 a – instant noodle-loving Asians are in danger of adverse health effects through excessive amounts of sodium, fats and chemicals.

"We advise not to add the flavor mix prior to pouring the boiling water in," warned Xie Ding-hong of the Taiwanese Department of Health on a recent health internet forum. "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."

According to marketing researchers the most serious obstacle the instant noodle makers face is the growing awareness of their products' negative effect on human health. There are plentiful indicators that regular consumption of instant noodles makes people sick. Hong Kong's Consumer Council and the Centre for Food Safety recently tested dozens of types of instant noodles commonly sold in the territory to check their salt and fat content. Some were found to contain 4,350mg of sodium, more than double the daily intake limit recommended by the World Health Organization. A diet high in sodium can lead to heart disease and high blood pressure, which can cause kidney damage.

Instant noodles contain high amounts of saturated fats and trans fats, which are to blame for strokes and clogged arteries. Earlier this year the Chinese and Taiwanese media picked up on a horror story that resembled Morgan Spurlock's movie 'Super size me'. A Taiwanese woman who went to study abroad ate nothing but instant noodles for months. According to the reports, the woman, in her mid-30s, suffered a stroke.

Even the packaging contains toxics. Dioxins and hormone-like substances make their way from the glues used to seal the bowls. Dioxin builds up in body tissue and is highly toxic even in traces. Scientists warn that dioxin apart from being carcinogenic has extremely negative effects on reproductive and immune systems.

As is often the case with enterprises that have made a fortune with products that can't be called beneficial to health, a burst of corporate conscience apparently led Taiwan's Uni-President to establish a foundation that promotes a healthy lifestyle. Thus, since 2003 the 'Health Foundation of Millenary Love' operates with the objective to "actively educate the general public to learn about common chronic diseases and concepts of healthy diet". Programs are run with catchy names: 'Eat healthily and drink tea', 'Include kidney beans in your diet to reduce risks of heart diseases', 'Learn to read food labels to ensure balanced diet', 'How to prevent excessive blood fat levels', etc.

Celebrity endorsement and cultivation of the campus market are among the many other strategies Taiwan's instant noodle makers use to make sure the Taiwanese will continue slurping the convenient dish. There are countless reasons to do without instant noodles, yet to many the pros seem to outweigh the cons. They are fast, easy to make, and ideal for college students and others who can't be bothered with cooking. Just like Big Macs, only cheaper and without the lettuce, pickle and sesame seed bun

Jens Kastner is a freelance writer living in Taiwan. He can be contacted at kenslastner at googlemail dot com