By Shan Li
Los Angeles Times
Cup Noodles became a staple in college dorms because of its cost and convenience. If you had pocket change, boiling water and three minutes to spare, you could eat Japanese ramen — or at least an approximation of it — out of a handy foam cup.
But in the 45 years since Cup Noodles first appeared on supermarket shelves, Americans have become increasingly inclined to read nutritional labels even in the snack aisle. Now food companies are scrambling to catch up to changing tastes, introducing organic Gatorade and unsalted Kettle potato chips to appeal to health-conscious diners.
On Thursday, Nissin Foods USA — the Gardena, California-based arm of the Japanese instant noodle giant Nissin Foods Group — said it, too, is changing with the times. For the first time, Cup Noodles is getting a recipe overhaul. All eight flavors — which contain fried noodles, seasoning and dried ingredients such as vegetables — have been retooled by reducing sodium and stripping out MSG and artificial flavors. The new versions will be available only in the U.S.
A first-ever national advertising campaign will launch in coming months to introduce the changes to Cup Noodles, which helped the company rack up $3.6 billion in global sales in its 2015 fiscal year.
Before the change, Cup Noodles’ most popular flavor, chicken, contained 1,430 mg of sodium — about 60 percent of the daily recommended intake. The new version, which has started hitting store shelves, contains 1,070 mg of sodium — about 45 percent of the daily recommended intake. Hydrolized vegetable protein has replaced artificial MSG. Green cabbage juice was added to boost the taste.
Al Multari, chief executive of Nissin Foods USA, said the recipe changes were in direct response to feedback from customers, who wanted the same taste but with an improved nutritional profile.
“They were saying, ‘We love your product, but we’d really like to see these changes made,’” Multari said.
The Cup Noodles tweaks come as long-standing food brands are racing to keep up with a rapidly evolving American palate that’s starting to favor grab-and-go salads over burgers and fries.
Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, which have been struggling, are touting changes intended to appeal to a new generation of diners, such as cage-free Egg McMuffins. Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and candy-maker Nestle USA have said they are axing artificial ingredients. Kraft has rolled out a less lurid version of its classic macaroni and cheese without synthetic colors.
Other noodle-makers have already made similar tweaks. Toyo Suisan Kaisha, which makes a popular brand called Maruchan and racked up $3.2 billion of global sales in the 2015 fiscal year, has rolled out products that contain 35 percent less sodium. Its Instant Lunch chicken flavor, which comes in a cup, clocks in at 660 mg, or about 28 percent of daily intake. Nongshim’s Shin brand also offers noodles without added MSG.
Multari said Nissin hoped such changes will help boost Cup Noodles sales, which have been flat in recent years. (There was a slight uptick during the Great Recession.)
That same sluggish performance can be seen in the overall industry. U.S. sales of instant noodles were $1.06 billion last year, up just 4.1 percent from $1.02 billion in 2010, according to research firm Euromonitor.
Americans rank fifth worldwide in demand, out-slurped only by China, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam, according to the World Instant Noodles Association. However, U.S. consumption has fallen slightly. Last year, Americans chowed down on 4.2 billion servings of instant noodles, down from 4.4 billion in 2013, the association said.
Inside the L.A.-area test kitchen, about 10 employees equipped with four microwaves and three fridges have been working for a year to recraft the Cup Noodles recipe.
Monique Au-Yeung, a senior research and development specialist, acknowledged the process was sometimes frustrating. It took 13 tries, for instance, just to revamp the chicken variety alone. “It’s a balance of all materials for the flavor,” she said. The trickiness often came “towards the end, where you have to fine-tune the flavors.”
Some analysts questioned whether Nissin could really make over Cup Noodles’ reputation. “It’s very hard to change people’s perceptions of brands,” said Jim Prevor, a food analyst at the Perishable Pundit. “It usually fails, and it fails because to the extent you attract new people, you get push back too from people” used to the old version.