A noodles ban in faraway India provokes NAFDAC to action in Nigeria and sets the entire East African market afire. Now, as the epic 2-minute noodles case between Swiss Giant, Nestle and tough Indian regulator, FSSA, draws closer to a possible finale this July, what implications could it have for the Nigerian and African market? We also ask the question, should you be worried about the health risks of consuming Instant Noodles?
In the last one year, observers of the huge noodles market in the international scene have watched with fascination as the popular category continues to face huge credibility challenges. Last year in India, Maggi noodles came under fire when the Indian Food and Safety Standards Authority (FSSA) conducted tests that appeared to show that the levels of lead found in the noodles were much higher than were permitted. Their report said that the “sample taken by the establishment of the commissioner of Food Safety…found presence of lead at 17.2ppm”. (ppm means “parts per million”). The permitted level of lead of lead in such foodstuffs in India is only 2.5 ppm so if these figures are to be believed the level of lead found is about seven times higher than is thought acceptable. This, according to experts is particularly worrisome because children are major consumers of the product and excess levels of lead are implicated in learning and development difficulties in children.
The multinational however protested, drawing attention to her own tests which show that the FSSA results are incorrect. Instead the claim that their results “show that lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that Maggi noodles are safe to eat”. The controversy ended in court with Nestle arguing about the correct results and issues relating to the interpretation of the Food Safety and Standards Act”.
Concerns quickly spread across African markets where the Indian made product is popular. The Kenya bureau of standards issued a warning about the noodles and they were subsequently removed from supermarket shelves in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. The US Food and Drug administration took samples to test and concerns spread to Botswana.
In Nigeria, the country’s food and drug watchdog, NAFDAC, went for the kill, taking a cue from the Indian report, and depending entirely on the FSSA, it issued a devastating warning titled “Maggi Noodles Can Kill”. It warned Nigerians to stop the consumption of famous Maggi 2-minute instant Noodles produced by Nestle India stating that it is dangerous to the health. Its sole reference for this was the lead story from FSSA in India.
According to NAFDAC, “Nestle has recalled its Maggi instant noodles from stores across India following reports by the Indian Food safety regulators of probable lead contamination. Lead exposure causes an estimated 143,000 deaths a year worldwide”. The agency ordered that the product should be withdrawn from the market immediately.
However, in a happy twist for Nestle in India, test results from all three laboratories mandated by the Bombay high court show Maggi to be safe, with lead content well within the permissible limits. According to the company, “In compliance with the orders of the Bombay High Court, we began manufacturing Maggi noodles and submitted the new batches for testing as well. All three NABL (National accreditation board for testing and calibration laboratories) accredited laboratories have reconfirmed that Maggi noodles are safe for consumption. Thereafter the product went back to the market. But it was a short relief as FSSA dragged them before the Indian supreme court averring that the Bombay high court should have appointed a neutral authority to select the Maggi samples for test rather than allowing Nestle to pick them on its own.
The move, according to FSSA, violated the “principles of natural justice”. It insisted that the ban should resume until a neutral agency picks up the sample and performs the required tests. At the April 3, 2016 hearing at the Supreme court of India, fresh test reports were presented before the learned judges. Hearing was subsequently adjourned till July.
The eventual outcome of that judgement will have deep consequences for the Nigerian and African instant noodles market. Many issues are up for resolution, the most important is the main one regarding lead presence in instant noodles. Another major issue will be the fate of instant noodles products in Nigeria which contain MSG. The consumption of MSG has been “linked with obesity and metabolic defects, part of being a trigger of asthma and causing headaches and subsequently reported pericranial muscle tenderness”. Experts contend that some popular noodles in Nigeria contain MSG. Should the Indian agency press forward on MSG after resolving the lead matter, surely a negative ruling will provoke another round of punitive actions by NAFDAC against local noodles. Our opinion however is that NAFDAC needs to be more proactive and original. It ought to depend more on its own laboratories and should be in the vanguard of carrying out periodic tests rather than following the footsteps of its Indian counterpart.
Matters have not been made easier by Dr Mercola, the online medical commentator and researcher whose recent declamation of instant noodles have been making the rounds. The influential medical researcher has come down hard on instant noodles which, according to him, “does not contain any nutrition, but it does contain close to 2,700mg of sodium in just one package”.
According to him, it also contains “the toxic preservative, TBHQ, common in all kinds of processed foods, which is a by-product of the petroleum industry. Exposure to just one gram of TBHQ can cause nausea and vomiting, ringing in the ears(tinnitus), delirium or a sense of suffocation”.(ME: Do you feel that when you eat noodles?)
Among others, “it also contains MSG, an excitotoxin, which can overexcite your nerve cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain dysfunction and damage to varying degrees—and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and more”.
He reveals also that women who ate instant noodles more than twice a week were 68 per cent more likely to have a metabolic syndrome.
He is not alone, regarding MSG and TBHQ which are usually present in noodles for their taste enhancing and preservative properties. According to Dr Sunil Sharma, general physician and head of emergency, Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital, “Dietary intake of these elements is allowed within a limit, (but) regular intake can cause severe health issues”. The Washington Post, quoting a 2015 South Korean study conducted on the effects of instant noodles on human health noted that: “Although instant noodles is a delicious and convenient food, there could be an increased risk for metabolic syndrome given (the food’s) high sodium, unhealthy saturated fat and glycemic loads” (Hyun Shin, co-author of the study).
The study concluded that excessive instant noodle consumption can not only trigger obesity but also metabolic ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, heart problems and so on”.
The long and short of it is that consumers should generally avoid replacing real food with fast food. Fast food and processed foods should be consumed occasionally as overindulgence is not helpful to the individual’s health. The big question, at this point, is, do makers of these products understand these risks and how does their understanding affect the way the products have been positioned? Many instant noodles in Nigeria for example are positioned as full meal replacement. In view of the evidence above, that is most probably wrong. Manufacturers and marketers of instant noodles should face up to the reality that it should never be seen as a replacement of the proper meal. Perhaps NAFDAC and even APCON should focus on that to help both manufacturer and consumer stay healthy!
The writer, Akin Adeoya, is Nigeria’s leading marketing and brand communications analyst, a consultant and publisher of the upcoming Cobrareview.com. He has written for Nigeria’s leading publications and consulted for several Nigerian multinationals and government institutions for over two decades. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org