On Mondays, they serve Matar Paneer in the mess. But as my friend down the hall puts it, it is better described as “water Paneer” – a few peas and an even fewer pieced of cottage cheese swimming in a curry that’s all but water. Needless to spell out, you walk out of the mess feeling less than full. Two hours on, you fall prey to crazy hunger pangs. The solution? Why, a packet of Maggi noodles of course!

If you have ever lived in a hostel in the last thirty years or so, the story above must be only too familiar. But the massive popularity of Maggi noodles is definitely not confined within the poster-clad walls of college hostels. If you live in India, you probably have slurped on a plateful at some point or another. So much so, that everyone has a “Maggi memory” – and the manufactures have very cleverly tapped into this nostalgia factor associated with Maggi noodles as a major marketing strategy. In fact, in India, “Maggi” is synonymous with instant noodles, despite the existence of other brands. According to a report by Euromonitor, Nestle has 60% of the instant noodle market in India with Maggi – the first instant noodle introduced in the country. Marketed as a “2 Minute Noodles” since 1982, the manufacturers seem to have stumbled upon a highly saleable hit formula back then and never looked back.

At the same time, despite being arguably one of India’s most popular food brands, Maggi has repeatedly come under the scanner for being unhealthy. What, then, accounts for the unparalleled popularity of Maggi noodles in India? And what is the controversy all about? Let’s explore.

Maggi noodles

The popularity:

Why are Maggi noodles as popular as they are? Perhaps, the most common-sensical answer is the extreme convenience they guarantee. They are very inexpensive – available in packets worth 10 and 5. This implies that almost everyone, from broke college students to budget-conscious moms, can afford to put a few packets of Maggi on their shopping list – and pretty frequently. Besides, Maggi noodles are as easy to cook as can be. If you were a child of the ‘80s, the ‘90s, or the ‘00s (yes – three generations), chances are Maggi was the first thing you were ever actually allowed to cook. Late night hunger pangs at home? Campsite snack-craving? Maggi is your one simple answer.

Effective marketing is another factor that accounts for the unprecedented popularity of Maggi noodles in India.

“Mummy Bhookh lagi!”

“Bas 2 minute!”

These signature Maggi lines are indeed unforgettable. They highlight how easy it is to cook the noodles, the fact that they are seldom ready in 2 minutes notwithstanding. Here’s another slogan you’ll remember: “Taste Bhi, Health Bhi”. This one’s aimed at putting a mom’s misgivings about exposing her child to a potentially unhealthy food at rest. A food that your child loves – and you will indeed have a hard time finding a child whodoes not love Maggi noodles – and it promises health? That’s the dream!

Perhaps, another reason why Maggi noodles have a wide appeal is the fact that they take well to the addition of different ingredients – veggies, chicken, cheese, butter, ketchup, etc. In fact, there are entire road-side joints selling only different types of Maggi noodles – Masala Maggi, Cheese Maggi, Butter Maggi, Chicken Maggi, Egg Maggi, Spicy Maggi – you name it, they have it.


The Controversy:

You have probably received emails and SMSes warning you against the possible wax content of Maggi noodles. Yes, the same ones that probably also told you about Kurkure containing plastic and Coke being an excellent toilet cleaner, etc. While viral mass messages are rarely to be taken at face value, food critics have also condemned Maggi noodles for being low in nutrition and high in salt, MSG, and fat. It was to counter this ‘unhealthy’ tag that the brand marketers quickly came up with the “Taste Bhi Health Bhi” slogan. They also came up with the new Maggi Atta noodles. With a healthy green packaging and new tags –  with the “goodness of three rotis” and “with vegetables” – these noodles were obviously aimed at driving home a more-than-subliminal message about better health.

Maggi Atta Noodles

So, on the one hand there are all these allegations about the noodles being fried in wax and animal fat before packaging and apprehensions about unhealthy packaging that causes the plastic to leach into the actual food, and on the other, there is the manufacturer’s claim that it’s all good and safe and healthy. What do we as consumers believe?

The Middle-way:

While we may never know the full truth, it probably lies somewhere in between the scare-mongering and the slick marketing. The Atta noodles may be slightly better than the maida ones, but three desiccated peas and five shreds of dehydrated carrots in the Tastemaker hardly count for “added vegetables”. Nutritionally there isn’t much that Maggi noodles can offer, unless you decide to mix in your own ingredients (like fresh vegetables or protein-rich lean meats). Also, now that the ‘No MSG’ claim is prominently made on the packet, know that it is highly plausible that other substitutes are used for it – such as excess salt. There is also the claim that the product has “goodness of protein/calcium/fibre” – know that it perhaps has just enough to let the manufacturers legally make that claim.

So while you may love Maggi – for reasons of taste, nostalgia, or convenience, don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that it is anything close to as healthy as the marketing chaps would have you believe. But that does not mean that you have to buy into the charges of toxicity made by the alarmists either. Like so many other things in life, moderation is the key. An occasional Maggi meal really doesn’t need to make you feel guilty.