Okay, fine, I’ll admit it. I love instant ramen. When I’ve had a bad day or a sleepless night, nothing soothes my soul like a bowl of dirt-cheap, chemical-laden, carb-heavy noodles cooked up in two minutes flat. But like many fans, I’ve often felt guilty about chowing down on this highly processed food.
Enter Immi. The newly launched startup is on a mission to create a healthy version of instant ramen. The noodles are packed with 31 grams of plant protein from pumpkin seeds and fava beans (compared to 6 grams in traditional ramen), only 9 grams of net carbs, and seasonings made from natural spices. But at $6.25 per serving, Immi’s noodles are about 10 times the price of the competition. Will lovers of instant ramen bite? (Or rather, slurp?)
Founders Kevin Lee and Kevin Chanthasiriphan met while working at a gaming startup in San Francisco and instantly bonded over their shared love of Asian food, particularly ramen. Both of their families also have connections to the food industry: Lee’s parents are produce farmers in Taiwan; Chanthasiriphan’s family owns an Asian grocery and Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. While growing up, they had seen exactly how unhealthy and processed a lot of Asian food had become, epitomized in instant ramen, a staple in many Asian homes.
More than 100 billion servings of ramen noodles are sold annually in a $42 billion market. “Many members of our own families have health problems that are partly caused by diet,” Lee says. “They’re prediabetic and have hypertension, which can be directly traced to food.”
I can relate. Also having grown up in an Asian home, I could always count on finding a few packages in the pantry. They were among the first foods I learned to cook myself and provided instant gratification when I was hangry or needed a midnight snack. At the time, I wasn’t particularly worried that the noodles had few nutrients and were heavily loaded with palm oil, salt, and MSG. But things have changed. As an adult concerned about nutrition, my instant noodles look a little out of place in a kitchen full of quinoa and organic fruit.
I’m not alone, according to Immi’s founders, who conducted focus groups before launching the brand. “There are many people who grew up loving ramen but have stopped eating it entirely because it’s unhealthy,” Lee says. “But these people are still nostalgic about the food. This is precisely who we’re targeting.”
Immi is marketed as a close replica of instant ramen, but that isn’t quite right. My takeaway is that it’s a quick, healthy meal that is vaguely reminiscent of the original. The noodles look and taste a lot more like buckwheat soba noodles, rather than the flour noodles that are the hallmark of instant ramen. The flavors—tom yum shrimp, spicy beef, and black garlic chicken—do replicate typical seasonings of instant ramen, but I could tell they had far less salt than the traditional flavor packs I love. Lee and Chanthasiriphan say this is just version one of their product, and they’re constantly iterating to improve the taste and texture.
Immi’s founders spent a year developing these noodles, working out of their home kitchens to create a nutrient-dense noodle that is also shelf stable and can cook in five minutes. In some ways, they were walking in the footsteps of Momofuku Ando, who invented instant ramen in 1958 through his company Nissin foods. Ando figured out how to flash-fry noodles, which dehydrated them, allowing them to last for years in the pantry.
Ando managed to create a supply chain and factory to keep prices low. Immi’s founders are finding a low price point to be more of a challenge. This comes down to their ingredients, particularly the plant proteins, which are expensive. But it is also due to the manufacturing process.
The majority of the world’s instant ramen is made by three companies—Nissin and Toyo Suisan from Japan; and Lotte Foods from South Korea—which have enormous factories that churn out millions of packages per month. Lee and Chanthasiriphan reached out to some of these factories to leverage their scale, but they were turned down because the owners didn’t believe there was a market for healthy ramen. “Ramen is so cheap that companies only make money by selling in volume,” Chanthasiriphan says. “Our business model didn’t make any sense to the factories.”
In the end, the pair found a manufacturing facility in the United States that does not specialize in ramen. Throughout the product development process, Immi invited thousands of people to provide feedback and insights about the ramen. One of the top comments they received is that the noodles are far more expensive than they’d like. So Lee and Chanthasiriphan are now focused on driving down the price without compromising on the nutrition.
“The original instant noodles were a way to feed a lot of people after [World War II], when there was a lot of poverty,” Chanthasiriphan says. “Our goal is to go beyond just putting food in people’s bellies, but making sure this food is also nutritious.”