Behind the Label: Pot Noodle
22nd September, 2009
Marketed as the ultimate quick food fix, 240 Pot Noodles are eaten every minute in Britain. But what exactly is in the 'slag of all snacks'? Pat Thomas on fats, salt and flavour enhancers
The best defence, as any sportsperson will tell you, is offence. So it was that Pot Noodle - the instant snack so beloved of poverty stricken students - came to famously described itself as "the slag of all snacks". When you've got little more than a large advertising budget to recommend you, make the most of it.
Ecologist readers probably don't need to be told that Pot Noodle isn't really food in any sense that we might recognise - i.e. fresh, seasonal, local, organic. But apart from an aggressive, occasionally tasteless, advertising campaign, how much do you know about what goes in to a Pot Noodle?
The nation's favourite
According to parent company Unilever the Pot Noodle brand, which was launched into Britain in 1977, is the UK's No 1 pot snack with a huge 77 per cent market share. The primary target market for the brand is the 16-24 year old male.
Sales of Pot Noodle account for around 95 per cent of the £105 million-a-year hot snack market and the snack's popularity shows little signs of waning in spite of increasingly bad press over its lack of nutritional value.
It is made in the town of Crumlin in South Wales. The factory there turns out around 155 million pots every year and it is estimated that 240 Pot Noodles are eaten every minute in Britain. Over the years there have been many different flavour variations, though Chicken and Mushroom remains the nation's favourite.
In 2008 there was a limited edition ‘Poulet et Champignon' version which sold in Harrods for around £30 a pot (100 pots were made and the proceeds went to charity), and there was even a short lived attempt at producing an organic pot noodle.
All Pot Noodle flavours are 100 per cent suitable for vegetarians since even the ones that have meat in the varietal name don't have meat in the pot, and in 2007 Unilever relaunched the brand in the UK, having spent £10 million cutting the amount of salt in the product by 50 per cent.
Unilever are keen to point out that Pot Noodle contains no artificial colourings or preservatives. Given all this you might feel that there is little to worry about. But as ever the devil is in the details.
The first thing to understand about Pot Noodle - and really any snack that you 'just add water to' - is that the nutritional information can be horribly unclear and easily manipulated. Often the figures on the pot are so confusing most of us just don't bother to work our way through them.
In this type of snack the important figures are not the per 100g ‘as prepared' figures but the ‘per pot' figures which give you the full picture of what you are eating.
Before hydration the dry matter in a pot noodle weighs just under 100g. When you add water you are hydrating but also diluting the contents and nutritional values contained in that dry material.
Just as a Mars Bar whizzed up in a blender with some water could appear to have many fewer calories, fat and sugar per 100g than it does in it ‘dry' form, so it is with a Pot Noodle.
Salt 'n' fat
For instance, although the brand has reduced its salt content by half, the fact remains that Pot Noodle is a fairly high salt snack. The Food Standards Authority defines a high salt snack as one with 0.5g sodium (1.25 g salt)/100g and a low salt snack as one with 0.1g sodium (0.25 g salt)/100g. Each pot of Pot Noodle hovers somewhere in the middle containing 0.80g sodium (1.99g salt). Even so, the recommended daily intake of salt is 6 g - which means that each pot supplies 33 per cent of your recommended daily salt intake.
High intake of salt can cause high blood pressure - a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.
Pot Noodle is also high in fat. This comes from the addition of vegetable oil which acts as a binder and improves the ‘mouth feel' of the product. Most vegetable oils in processed foods are based on corn or sunflower oil high in omega 6 fatty acids. Over-consumption of omega-6 is linked to cancer, immune system damage, hormone imbalance heart disease and stroke.
Again the Food Standards Agency defines a high fat product as containing 20g/100g and a look at the ‘per pot' information shows that a single pot contains 13.7g of fat - almost a fifth of the recommended daily intake for women, and a seventh of that for men. That may not seem too bad but it's worth doing a little extra math here to consider how many of the calories in a Pot Noodle come from fat.
Start with the fact that 1g of fat equals 9 calories. So the total number of calories from fat in a Pot Noodle is 123. That means that nearly 33 per cent of its calories come from fat. A low fat diet typically derives around 20 per cent of its calories from fat. In a high fat diet this figure rises to 40 per cent. What is more, a healthy diet might derive 8-10 per cent of calories from saturated fats. In a Pot Noodle nearly 16 per cent of calories are derived from saturates.
Assuming the person eating the Pot Noodle is a well nourished health fanatic who only eats low fat/low salt foods the rest of the time these figures might not be too important. But, really, what are the odds of that being true?
Then there are the flavour enhancers monosodium glutamate and disodium 5 ribonucleotides.
Monosodium glutamate (E621) is a central nervous system poison in the same family as Aspartame (go to the Ecologist archive here and click on '2005' and then 'September' to read a major investigation into aspartame).
Reported adverse reactions include migraine headache, asthma, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, tightness in the chest, a burning sensation in the forearms and the back of the neck, disorientation, and depression. Recent studies suggest long-term eye damage can result from its use including retinal lesions and thinning of the retina itself and macular degeneration.
Disodium 5 ribonucleotide (E635) is a relatively new flavour enhancer (sometimes called 'the new MSG'), introduced in 1994. It is known to work synergistically with MSG to produce a flavour intensity that is 10-15 times greater than with MSG alone (the combination is regularly found in stock cubes and salty snacks).
E635 is associated with its own set of adverse reactions, predominantly with itchy skin rashes which can appear up to 30 hours after ingestion; rashes may vary from mild to dramatic; and the reaction appears to be dose-related and cumulative. Some individuals are more sensitive than others. It should probably be avoided by gout sufferers, asthmatics and aspirin sensitive people.
Disodium 5 ribonucleotides also represent a snack food industry cheat. If ingredients that naturally contain glutamates such as yeast extract or hydrolysed vegetable protein were used in a product that contained ribonucleotides, the label could claim ‘NO ADDED MSG' but the dramatic flavour enhancing effect - and for sensitive individuals the adverse effect - would remain.
Tossing the pot
It could be argued that if a person hates themselves enough to make Pot Noodle a regular part of their diet, then that's their sorry business. But there is an environmental dimension here too. Pot Noodle is packaged in a rigid polypropylene (PP5) pot. When the snacking is done the pot gets tossed. Although PP5 can, in theory, be recycled many local councils in the UK do not have the facilities to do so.
If your recycling team is anything like mine and a PP5 pot accidentally slips into the recycling box, it gets thrown onto the pavement in front of your home - or, if you're really lucky, your front path - for you to pick up later. Until such time as PP5 recycling is widespread these pots (240 a minute, remember) simply end up in landfill or go for incineration, making the environment unhealthy as well.
Will the odd Pot Noodle kill you? No. Will it enhance our body or your health in any way? No. Is it the ultimate in lazy eating and as such is symbolic of so much of what is wrong with our ongoing love affair with processed food? Yes. Is it perhaps time we stepped off this fast moving treadmill of the snack food innovations? Undoubtedly.
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