Noodles untouched by human hands

IT FELT as if we won a Golden Ticket —  just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory —  when we got an invitation to tour the new Lucky Me instant noodle plant in Malvar, Batangas. We also tried to do a song number, but no Oompa-Loompas were present to sing with us.

Media guests were taken to the new plant in Batangas on Aug. 31 to see the new facilities, which started operations in August 2021. The Malvar plant sits on eight hectares of land, and is capable of producing around one million packs of instant noodles a day. A tour video (narrated by Lucky Me’s mascot, Lucky M, a giant noodle cake), said that the packing machines can process two packs of noodles “in a blink of an eye,” translating to 250 packs of noodles per minute.

Lucky Me is one of the brands under the Monde Nissin Corp. umbrella, specializing in several food brands. These include biscuit brands SkyFlakes and Fita, Nissin wafers and cookies, and around the world, the meat analogue Quorn. Lucky Me, in turn, produces instant noodles as soup (Lucky Me Instant Mami) and dry noodles (pancit canton). The company has the distinction of making the first instant dry noodle in the country. The company was founded in 1979 by the late Hidajat Darmono. Betty Ang, Mr. Darmono’s daughter-in-law (through his son Hoediono Kweefanus) and Monde Nissin president and co-founder, is listed as No. 20 on the Philippines 50 Richest for 2022 list by Forbes, with an estimated net worth of $1.2B.

UNTOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDSAfter watching the introductory video, guests were taken up to a viewing deck (with the walls and floors appropriately painted in yellow) where we could see the process of making the noodles. These include mixing, flattening, curling, steaming, cutting, frying, cooling, and packing.

The plant mills the flour itself (from wheat kernels imported from the USA, Canada, and Australia). The flour is mixed with water and other ingredients in a great mixer, after which the dough rests and is flattened. Noodles are cut to the right size, then the strands are curled. The curling of the noodles allows them to cook quicker, because steam settles into the tight spaces made by the curled noodles. They are then steamed, cut and folded into shape, then fried (to make them shelf-stable; also to dry them), then dried with cool air.

The noodles come in two different shapes: those for Lucky Me Instant Mami (noodle soup) are made in squares, while the Pancit Canton (stir-fried dry noodles) are made round. The tour guides said that this helps in differentiation, especially since the pancit canton noodles undergo another water-dipping process to make them firmer. The noodles are then packed by a machine, then transported to a warehouse where robots stack them on shelves the size of small houses.

It was emphasized during the tour that no human hands ever touch the product in the process: we watched workers do everything with a series of buttons and iPads.

NEW VARIETIESDuring the tour, the company also introduced guests to new varieties. These include the limited-edition Sweet Spicy Mansi and Extra Chiliman Hot pancit canton varieties, (combining two flavors in one pack), and the Lucky Me Milky Me noodle soup (in chicken, and corn).

In an e-mail to BusinessWorld, Mark Tiangco, Corporate Communications Head of Monde Nissin Corp., told us how they come up with the flavors. “We listen to our consumers and that’s where a lot of ideas come from. We also look at trends in the general food industry, not just in noodles for inspiration. From there we have a R&D team that develops the flavors and ingredients into candidate products that go through rounds of tasting and evaluation internally and with consumers. At the same time they work with the manufacturing and QA (quality assurance) team to make sure that these new products can be produced consistently at the best quality.”

These noodles are also part of a new generation of noodles that are healthier (instant food does get a bad rap). They add no artificial preservatives (instead they use green tea extract) to all the noodles, and the noodles are fortified with iron and Vit. A. They’ve also reduced sodium content by 25% (this is specific to Lucky Me noodles).

“We have continually been improving our products to make them better. Some we have communicated such as the fortification of noodles by adding vitamins and minerals and our shift to natural preservatives in our NAPA (no artificial preservatives added) campaign. Other changes are more subtle such as the gradual reduction of sodium over time and the application of our newest High-speed Airflow technology to reduce the saturated fat in noodles by 50%. These changes are constantly being made to make Lucky Me! better for you without sacrificing the taste and enjoyment of consumers,” said Mr. Tiangco.

CONTROVERSY AND THE FUTUREEarlier this year, Monde Nissin faced a recall in Europe due to their products testing positive for traces of the chemical ethylene oxide (used in medical and agricultural applications to kill bacteria and viruses, and also a potential carcinogenic). Lucky Me addressed this by showing the tour group a video (it’s less cheerful in tone than the one narrated by Lucky M). The video explained that the tests measure for the presence of ethylene oxide byproduct 2-chloroeathanol (which can be naturally occurring in certain foods).

“There’s no ethylene oxide in finished products because it dissipates quickly,” the video said, adding that ethylene oxide boils quickly at a temperature of 10.7° Celsius. It further reiterates that, “It is more a regulatory issue rather than a safety issue,” since the allowable limit of ethylene oxide in the European Union is much lower than that allowed in other countries (0.02 mg/kg, according to the Food and Drug Administration of the Philippines).

In any case, Mr. Tiangco also told BusinessWorld about their sustainability plans, moving forward, including using renewable energy and minimizing plastic packaging

“Monde Nissin has just signed an agreement to power nearly all of its facilities including Malvar with 100% renewable energy,” he told BusinessWorld.

“While packaging is essential in delivering quality products to our customers, we are working towards minimizing our plastic packaging footprint. We have implemented design solutions to downsize the usage of packaging materials without compromising the quality of its products. Further, we are making the plastics we use recycle-ready, using mono-materials that are easy to reprocess and convert to other usable items,” he said, addressing Lucky Me’s use of single-use plastic.

“We are working on improving our waste management practices by aiming to take the measures and process improvements necessary to achieve zero waste to landfill from our manufacturing operations by 2025,” he said.

“We recognize that we need help in addressing plastic pollution. We are working with other stakeholders to be part of a circular economy, recovering the value in plastic waste rather than letting it leak into the environment. We work with researchers and packaging suppliers to seek alternative materials, and finally with consumers to help communicate the proper way of disposing of waste so that it can be captured and reprocessed,” he said.

“We aspire to improve the well-being of not just people but the planet as well,” he said. — Joseph L. Garcia

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