Generations of Indian school children grew up eating it as their after-school snack. Hostel students relied on it as their go-to meal while mugging for exams the next day. Trekkers on the Himalayan plains depended on it while climbing the harsh snowy ascent where little else was available. Even the Indian army would stock it in canteens because its personnel could not do without this convenient food stuff.
We are referring to the 2-minute wonder called Maggi, which has caught the imagination of the nation since 1983, when it was introduced in India. The notion that something could be cooked within 2 minutes sounded like a culinary miracle to a nation that was still not used to eating out a lot, watching cooking shows on TV or getting food out of a packet, as it is now.
“I remember, as a kid, how every Saturday, we would pester our mother to cook Maggi noodles for us. It was a weekend treat that we awaited and even though it was available in only a single flavour, we would not tire of it,” reminisces Lata Pednekar, a homemaker in Nashik. While she used to happily prepare Maggi noodles for her kids regularly as well, the recent furore over the product has her worried. And she is not the only one.
Recently, the government banned the sale of Maggi noodles in Delhi for 15 days and ordered that existing stocks be withdrawn. Brands like retail major Future Group have decided to stop selling it at their Big Bazaar outlets till further results are received that show that the noodles are safe for consumption. Even the Indian Army has asked its personnel to avoid eat the instant noodles and has stopped stocking it at its canteens, till further orders.
To better understand the brouhaha about Maggi noodles, CaLDRON magazine decided to get clarification from Nestlé. Here is what the company has to say:
CaLDRON: Are Maggi noodles safe to eat?
Nestlé: Yes. We are confident that our Maggi noodle products in India and elsewhere are absolutely safe for consumption.
Food safety is Nestlé’s number one priority. We do more food testing that any other entity in the world and have many stringent controls to guarantee safety: starting from the raw materials we use, throughout processing to packaging.
We have tested around 1,000 batches of Maggi noodles in our own laboratories and also asked an independent lab to test an additional 600 product batches. Almost 12.5 crore packets were tested in total. The test results confirm that Maggi noodles are safe, with lead levels well within the food safety limits specified by the Indian authorities.
CaLDRON: What are you doing in response to the findings from the Indian authorities of elevated levels of lead in Maggi noodles?
Nestlé: We understand that consumers are concerned by reports that state authorities in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have found elevated levels of lead in a sample pack of Maggi Masala noodles. We are fully cooperating with the authorities and engaging with them to clarify the situation.
The sample tested in Uttar Pradesh came from a batch that had an expiry date of November 2014 and is therefore no longer in the market. We are now working closely with regulators in Delhi to understand their test results. We are sharing our own test results, which show Maggi noodles to be completely safe, explaining our testing methodologies and trying to understand the discrepancy between their test results and ours.
Some states are conducting their own tests on Maggi noodles as a precautionary measure. We understand how unsettling some of the current confusion is for our consumers and are working hard to resolve this matter.
CaLDRON: Why is there any lead at all in Maggi noodles?
Nestlé: Trace amounts of lead are present in the atmosphere and in the soil around the world due to the use of fertilisers and pest control. The authorities have set firm limits to ensure that any lead present in a finished product is within recommended food safety levels and safe to consume.
We regularly monitor all our raw materials for lead, including testing by accredited laboratories. These tests have consistently shown lead in Maggi noodles to be within safe limits. In addition to testing both raw materials and finished products for lead, we carry out extensive research on lead and contribute to global efforts to assure safety in this area.
We are constantly striving to improve the quality of agricultural materials across the food chain, working with farmers, suppliers, authorities and the rest of the food industry to ensure food safety.
CaLDRON: Why are you still selling the product? Will there be a recall?
Nestlé: Our own tests and tests in external laboratories have shown that Maggi noodles are safe. The levels of lead found in them are well within the food safety limits set by the authorities. Our product is still available for sale because we are confident that it is safe and of good quality.
On 30 April 2015 the local authorities in Lucknow asked us to recall one batch of Maggi noodles (around 200,000 packs) which were manufactured in February 2014 and expired in November 2014. Nestlé India’s practice is to collect stock that is close to its expiry date from distributors so we are confident that these packs are no longer in the market.
On 3 June 2015 the Delhi authorities made a press announcement that a 15 day ban would be imposed on Maggi noodles and that Nestlé would be served with a notice to recall the product from retail outlets in the state. We are yet to receive an official notification of this from the authorities.
We are currently engaging with different authorities in India, both at federal and state levels, to clarify the situation. We remain confident that our Maggi noodles in India and elsewhere are absolutely safe for consumption.
CaLDRON: Why are you the subject of a criminal complaint by the state government in Uttar Pradesh?
Nestlé: We are aware of media reports that say a case has been filed against us by the authorities in Uttar Pradesh. On receipt of the official notice we will take appropriate action under the guidance of our legal advisors. We cannot comment any further at this stage.
CaLDRON: Why did the authorities find MSG in your product when it says ‘no added MSG’ on the label?
Nestlé: We do not add the flavour enhancer MSG (E621) to Maggi noodles in India. However, the product contains glutamate from hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour. Glutamate produces a positive result in a test for MSG.
CaLDRON: Weren’t you misleading consumers?
Nestlé: It was not our intention to mislead consumers but we understand that the positive result in a test for MSG has led to concern among people who buy the product.
CaLDRON: But by saying ‘no added MSG’ on the label weren’t you just trying to get around the labelling regulations?
Nestlé: No. We were not trying to ‘get around’ the labelling regulations. In response to consumer preference for products without MSG we took the decision that, where none was added, we should make this clear on the label by stating ‘no added MSG’. This is common practice followed by the food industry and complies with Indian food law and regulations.
CaLDRON: What is the difference between monosodium glutamate (MSG) and glutamate?
Nestlé: The amino acid L-Glutamate is one of the most abundant and is found in all foods that contain protein, such as cheese, milk, mushrooms, meat, fish, and many vegetables. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who gave this unique taste the name ‘umami’, the fifth taste beside sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Today, it is mostly produced by a natural fermentation process that has been used for centuries to make such common foods such as beer, vinegar and yogurt.
CaLDRON: Are MSG or glutamate unsafe?
Nestlé: None of the many scientific studies carried out over the last 30 years have shown a link between MSG intake and adverse reactions such as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. The international World Health Organisation / UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s evaluation committee, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Food and the United States Food and Drug Administration have affirmed that MSG is safe under common conditions of use.
There have been some concerns raised about the contribution of MSG to sodium intake via the diet. However, MSG contains only about 3rd the amount of sodium as table salt and so where we use it in products, in combination with a small amount of table salt, MSG can help reduce the total amount of sodium in a recipe by 20% to 40%, while maintaining an enhanced flavour. The level of glutamate for example in Maggi noodles is around 0.2 g/100 g, which is close to the average level of glutamate measured in the same portion size of tomatoes or peas.
CaLDRON: So if it is safe, why say on labels that no MSG has been added to a product?
Nestlé: In response to consumer preference for products without MSG we have taken the decision that where none is added we should make this clear on the label.
CaLDRON: What are you doing to reduce MSG?
Nestlé: Where we use MSG we are not reducing it because we consider the levels of MSG we use to be safe. We do not add MSG (E621) to our Maggi noodles. We are not reducing the quantities of the natural ingredients which provide glutamate in the product as it improves the aroma and taste of Maggi noodles.