Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Euan Mie

Indonesia has once again had its integrity outrageously questioned as the harsh, unforgiving spotlight of international standards and regulatory systems is mercilessly shone upon this great nation. This time around, one of the country's most nutritious staple foods, namely instant noodles, has been viciously slandered by the Taiwanese authorities, who have banned the product on the grounds that it contains excessive amounts of the preservative, benzoic acid.

I've long suspected that the plastic wrapper that the classic slab of Indomie comes packaged in contains more nutrients than the noodles themselves do, although I don't have the scientific data in front of me to back that claim up. This latest health scare comes on the back and various other horrors, including Indonesian market traders who douse their fish with formaldehyde in order to keep it looking fresh and free from flies. Personally, I'm not convinced that embalming one's customers is going to bring you a lot of repeat business although perhaps these traders also offer a sideline taxidermy services.

Indomie is an iconic, almost fetishized food here of course, and I have long despaired of ever understanding why it is that some of the country's worst foods, namely instant noodles and the grey balls of inorganic compounds and petrochemical pipeline tailings known as 'bakso' have the public hooked like junkies, when this is surely a land of fresh fruit, vegetables and general nutritional bounty.

Moreover, whenever there's a charity drive here, the food that almost invariably seems to get donated to the poor unfortunates in huge amounts is our old friend, the instant noodle, usually in enormous boxes filled with hundreds of packets. Just lost your house in an earthquake? Then add rickets to your woes by feeding your family on Indomie for a month.

I find it particularly ironic that Taiwan has rejected that toothsome Indomie blend of industrial solvents and unpronounceable chemicals spelt with lots of exes and zeds though, seeing as they invented the bloody stuff in the first place, but you've got to have standards I suppose. Apparently, consuming benzoic acid in large quantities can result in nausea, deterioration in kidney function and possibly metabolic acidosis, a potentially fatal condition.

The Indonesian BPOM (Food and Drug Monitoring Agency) has now declared that Indomie contains safe levels of both benzoic acid and a chemical called p-hydroxybenzoate (which sounds like something that you'd find in superglue). So that's okay then. Well I don't know about the BPOM, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they had a rather cozy relationship with the noodle industry.

As a parallel, America's FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are not necessarily a body that I'd entrust my body to. Well under the thumb of its corporate masters, the FDA recently declared walnuts to be drugs and Doritos to be, "Heart healthy." Food and Drug Administration you see. Pig out on McDonalds for 20 years and then get yourself on some pills to try and mitigate the consequences. Double sale! But I digress.

Returning to those errant noodles, let's have a run through some of the ingredients to be found in a typical packet that I bought at a branch of Circle K this week. I stared intently at the shelves on my visit perusing the various varieties on offer: Rubber and Sand flavor, Pencil Shavings and Axle Grease flavor, Nothing flavor. Eventually however, I plumped for a yellow packet of Kari Ayam flavor. So how did the ingredients break down?

Tartrazine: this yellow food dye has been linked with hyperactive disorders in children and has now been phased out in a number of European Union countries. In the 1990s, a myth began circulating that excessive tartrazine consumption could affect male potency and penis size, however there are no documented cases confirming this hysterical rumor. In fact, on the contrary, I'd say that East Asian gentlemen are positively hard for tartrazine laced noodles.


TBHQ: this is a preservative used for unsaturated vegetable oils and is also found in varnishes, lacquers and resins (whoa!). Some studies have suggested that the substance might be mildly carcinogenic, but who cares when your insides look as shiny as a freshly polished Chesterfield. 


MSG: everyone knows this one of course. This nuclear powered flavor enhancer (something like sodium chloride mixed with uranium) is an East Asian staple. MSG is seen as the bogeyman of instant cuisine and modern dietary habits, although strict double-blind medical trials have yet to show conclusively that the stuff can cause obesity or worsen symptoms of asthma, and MSG has now been pretty much declared medically safe. Also of course, without a healthy whack of MSG, Indomie would taste like, well, nothing at all I guess.


Benzoic Acid: this stuff actually occurs naturally in cranberries and bilberries, however too much of it is bad for the liver and kidneys.

Benzoic Acid

So there we have it folks, a few health issues to a mull over, although perhaps the time-honoured tradition of breaking an egg into the noodles and tipping half a bottle of chilli sauce into the mix serves to neutralize these latent dangers. In any case, I'm starting to feel peckish...