Hong Kong’s ‘irreplaceable’ comfort food is in hot water over health fears. The Post boils down the city’s love of instant noodles

Explainer | Hong Kong’s ‘irreplaceable’ comfort food is in hot water over health fears. The Post boils down the city’s love of instant noodles

Instant noodles are back in the headlines after Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog published a report saying potential carcinogens were found in almost 90 per cent of its samples. The Consumer Council also warned residents to be aware of its high sodium and fat content.

After the release of the report, office workers, students and night owls took to social media to defend the snack for its convenience and tastiness, calling the comfort food “irreplaceable”.

Gong zai mian – instant noodles in Mandarin – has been an integral part of Hong Kong’s culinary culture for decades, and here the Post dives into the city’s obsession with the pre-packaged comfort food, its potential health hazards and advice from nutritionists on how to make them more nutritious.

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According to the latest figures, Chinese consumed 45 billion servings of instant noodles in 2022, seven times the amount eaten in Japan. Photo: Dickson Lee

1. How obsessed are Hongkongers with instant noodles?

Hongkongers’ passion for this pre-packaged food can be explained by an annual “demand ranking” of the World Instant Noodles Association.

Among 56 places surveyed, Hong Kong and mainland China ranked first from 2018 to 2022, coming ahead of even Japan, where instant noodles were invented.

According to the association’s latest figures, Hongkongers and mainland Chinese consumed 45 billion servings of instant noodles in 2022, seven times the amount eaten in Japan.

The popularity of the pre-packaged food soared to a 10-year high when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, with imports climbing to more than 59,000 tonnes worth HK$1.22 billion (US$156 million), according to Census and Statistics Department data.

The obsession, put another way, translates into each of the city’s 7.47 million residents eating 76 packages of instant noodles on average, if each one weighed about 100 grams.

Potential carcinogens found in 90% of instant noodles: Hong Kong watchdog

2. What fuels Hong Kong’s passion for instant noodles?

Modern instant ramen noodles were invented in Japan and first marketed in the war-torn country in 1958. It arrived in Hong Kong in the 1960s when the city’s economy was soaring on the back of a surge in its manufacturing capabilities.

With the catchy slogan of “ready in three minutes”, the noodles quickly gained acceptance among Hong Kong’s time-strapped residents.

With its affordable price and diverse choices of toppings, the noodles turned into a collective go-to food served in cha chaan teng across the city.

The humble and convenient food has been served on the table as an all-day food item, and a popular go-to option for breakfast.

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Kenneth Chan Kin-nin and Gilly Wong Fung-han of the Consumer Council have warned that nearly 90 per cent of instant noodles tested have been found to contain potential carcinogenic contaminants. Photo: Edmond So

3. How do Hongkongers elevate their instant noodle game?

Instant noodles have gone through various rounds of localisation over the years, with Nissin, the Japanese manufacturer that brought the food to the city, creating a profusion of new flavours to cater to Hongkongers’ palates, such as spicy XO sauce, satay and five-spice beef.

Such diversity has also become part of the city’s signature food. Some Japanese influencers have suggested on YouTube and Instagram that travellers should bring home instant noodles in flavours that cannot be found otherwise in the country, creating a curious scene of the reverse import of a product invented in Japan.

A guide to processed foods and which are healthy (instant noodles are not)

4. What are the potential health hazards?

In its latest report released on Thursday, the Consumer Council said nearly 90 per cent of the samples it tested were found to contain probable carcinogens.

Saturated fat in the deep-fried noodles contained a significant amount of palm oil, which could increase bad cholesterol levels in the blood, thereby raising the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

The watchdog also said all 19 samples it recently tested exceeded the World Health Organization’s recommended adult intake limit of 667mg of sodium per meal for a full serving of noodles with sauce.

Nine of the samples exceeded the recommended daily intake limit for adults, which is set at 2,000mg per day.

Long-term excessive intake of sodium can have adverse effects on health and increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and kidney problems, it said.

Price of Cup Noodles to rise as soaring materials, logistics costs bite

5. Any ways to make instant noodles more nutritious?

Kathy Ng Yiu-fan, senior nutritionist of the Kat-Spirit Nutrition Centre, told the Post, that one of the primary culprits for instant food was the seasoning powder, which was high in sodium.

To eat healthier, people should reduce their sodium intake and avoid eating instant noodles too often, she said.

She suggested people could complement instant noodles with vegetables and high-quality protein sources, including eggs, chicken, sliced meat and seafood such as shrimp, scallops or squid.

“While the quality of the oil used in noodles may not be ideal, when the other ingredients are well-balanced, it can make the entire meal relatively less unhealthy,” she said.

Additional reporting by Ezra Cheung

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