I was ten or eleven when I tasted instant ramen for the first time. I was at a friend’s house playing NBA Jam. My friend showed me how to flick the flavor packet back and forth in order to gather the powder at the bottom. To me this seemed like an amazing trick, like cheating at daily life. I remember the insubstantial cake of dried noodles and I remember that the flavor was “oriental.” It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.
But my mother would not allow this food in our house. She did not say it was bad for me, although she must have thought so. What she said was that it was not food.
She meant that instant ramen was just white flour and artificial flavoring, and she didn’t count white flour as nourishment. By now this is a familiar point of view. White flour is the pulverized endosperm of the wheat berry; it’s had the bran and the germ, which contain almost all of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, oils, and protein, removed from it—which means that white flour isn’t really wheat anymore. It’s a processed food derived from wheat, just as corn syrup is a processed food derived from corn.
Instant ramen, and other things like it, is food from which food has been removed. This is what my mother was talking about, and it certainly does seem bad and crazy. But it made sense before refrigeration, because the germ and the bran are the parts that rot. As long as it stays dry, the endosperm will last a long time. (The whole wheat berries themselves, safe in their seed coats, will last even longer, but grinding flour by hand each day is difficult and aggravating, and most people throughout history have preferred to take their grain to a miller.) This is why white flour used to be considered a cleaner and safer food than whole grain flour. It’s also why a 1736 article in the London Magazine specified that white bread was more expensive than either “wheaten” or “household” bread and was made from only “the finest part of the Flower, produced from the choicest Kind of Wheat.” Its expense is probably what served to mask its impoverished nutritional profile, because if you could afford white flour, you could also afford meat and milk, and you were much less likely to develop nutritional deficiencies. Today white flour is usually “enriched,” which refers to the process of reintroducing a few of the nutrients that are lost when the bran and the germ are removed.
Instant ramen was a luxury product too, at least at first. It was invented in Japan by Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Food, and when it hit the market in 1958 it was six times more expensive than fresh noodles. Its convenience and novelty seem to have ensured its popularity in the early going, and it is now, under many brand names and in various forms, one of the most ubiquitous food items on earth. In 2012, global sales exceeded 100 billion servings, with China alone accounting for 44 billion. The price has fallen dramatically as well, and instant ramen is today an important source of calories for the world’s poorest people. This is supposed to have been Ando’s original dream. He was inspired to create it, he said, after seeing poor hungry people waiting in line for fresh noodles.
The association of white flour with wealth and high social status is ancient. Seneca writes in one of his epistles that he has resolved to fast until his baker has white bread or until hunger, which makes the coarsest bread seem “soft and delicate,” enables him to “relish brown.” The English word lord actually derives from the Old English hlaford or hlafweard, which means “loaf ward,” or “ward of the bread.” The fact that a white flour product like instant ramen should now be cheaper than any whole-grain alternative is an unprecedented development. It has to do with economies of scale and government subsidies—grim subjects for another day—but ultimately with shelf life, which is to say the very quality that made white flour more expensive in the past.
And this is a cruel irony. A whole-wheat version of instant ramen would be less shelf-stable, more expensive, and therefore inaccessible to the people who need it most. Deborah Gewertz, one of the co-authors of The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century, calls instant ramen a “proletarian hunger killer” in order to distinguish it from sources of real nourishment. Momofuku Ando is said to have declared that “peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat,” but it seems doubtful that this is what he envisioned. Gewertz says, “We have seen that very, very, very poor people need a source of calories. We do not think instant noodles will save the world by any means, but we end up concluding, with a significant amount of reluctance, they do more good than harm in keeping poor people not exactly nourished, but certainly alive.”
I’m grateful to my mother for teaching me about whole grains (which have since become an object of superstitious fixation for me). But food choice is one thing and food security is another. Our situation did not remotely correspond to that of a mother and child in the third world. We had NBA Jam! We might as well have been living on the moon.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple. His new novel, Mr. Eternity, will be published in 2016.