From saucy Pot Noodles to convenient and healthy supper ingredient, the noodle business is booming. While the UK has embraced them more quickly than its neighbours, Western Europe is discovering a taste for noodles too, as Emily Woon reports.

The latest research by global market analyst Euromonitor International reveals that retail value sales of noodles in Western Europe in 2005 increased by 4% over the previous year. Correspondingly, retail volume sales of noodles hit around 75,000 tonnes in the same year, registering an increase of about 6% on 2004. The relatively slow retail value growth in noodles was undoubtedly due to price competition, including BOGOF promotions (Buy One, Get One Free) and 3-for-2 offerings from relatively new formats, designed as a way of introducing them to consumers.

The majority of sales in Western Europe are derived from the UK, which accounted for a 65% value share in 2005. The second largest market is Ireland, which accounted for less than 8% of the market in value terms in the same year. Sales of noodles are still insignificant in continental Europe. This is largely due to the overwhelming competition from pasta and the attachment of most European consumers to their traditional cuisine.

However, noodles are becoming increasingly popular among consumers in Western Europe as more consumers are exposed to foreign food through international travel as well as ethnic foodservice outlets, which are sprouting up in most major European cities. Interest in and an appetite for ethnic dishes show no signs of subsiding, and the future for the noodle market in Western Europe looks positive. Euromonitor International expects value sales of noodles in Western Europe to register robust growth of 25% between 2005 and 2010.

In 2005, retail value sales of noodles in the UK increased by 3% over the previous year. However, in local currency terms, sales as a whole grew by a sturdy 7%. This was largely due to the appreciation of the euro against the pound sterling. The growth in UK sales of noodles in 2005 was largely attributed to strong consumer demand for cup/bowl instant noodles. This type of noodle is popular with older schoolchildren and students, while office workers have also begun to use cup/bowl instant cup noodles as a quick energy-boosting snack.

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The top brand of noodles in the UK is Unilever’s Pot Noodle, which dominated sales with a 54% value share in 2004. Humorous and consistent advertising targeted squarely at the Pot Noodle audience has ensured this product’s dominance. As consumers do not associate instant noodles with healthy food, Pot Noodle cleverly shies away from making health claims. Instead, it positions itself as an appealing, quick and tasty snack.

Retail value sales of plain noodles in Ireland registered the highest growth in the noodles sector, at 11%, in 2005. Such dynamic growth was largely due to the versatility of this food item. Such noodles are very convenient to use and go well with many dishes.

In addition, growth in sales of plain noodles has partly been driven by the introduction of new varieties of noodles in the Irish market. Cookery shows such as Masterchef Goes Large and Ready Steady Cook, as well as Jamie Oliver’s primetime programmes and advertisements for Sainsbury’s, have further encouraged many consumers to dabble with newer types of noodles. Glass, udon, cellophane (mung bean) and rice noodle varieties, which are very common in Thai, Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese dishes, can be found in many Irish households.

Sharwood’s, the regional leader in plain noodles, recently introduced its flavoured Noodle Box range in both the UK and Ireland. The range features noodles from different regions in Asia including Thai Red Curry Noodles and Cantonese Chow Mein. This product is a totally new concept for the ambient aisle, which has been developed in response to consumer interest in noodles and lighter eating. Ready in just two minutes in a microwave, the Noodle Box range appeals to consumers seeking a good-quality, quick-and-easy, mid-week meal. The product comes in three distinct flavours: Thai Red Curry; Cantonese Chow Mein; and Hong Kong Sweet & Sour. The offering also appeals to consumers who have an interest in trends in the US and would like to mirror the New York style of Chinese food boxes shown on US TV shows and films.

In Austria, retail value and volume sales of noodles grew by 36% and 34%, respectively, in 2005. Such rapid growth was no doubt due to the fact that noodles are still very much a niche in Austria compared to the rest of Western Europe. However, there has been enormous consumer interest in Asian and Thai cuisine in Austria in the last couple of years.

In addition, noodles are now available in most retail channels, and more shelf space is being given to noodles as a result of the growing consumer interest in these products. As a result, manufacturers have found it easier to push noodles into the mainstream. This is a stark contrast to a few years ago when noodles and other Asian speciality products were only available in Asian shops.

In addition, other than offering a high degree of convenience in terms of food preparation, more and more Austrians have begun to regard noodles as a healthy and tasty alternative to potatoes, rice and pasta. 

In Italy, sales of noodles are negligible as consumers are very much attached to pasta, which has household penetration of almost 100%. In Spain, meanwhile, poor consumer knowledge of noodles, due to a lack of advertising and new product development, led to a continuous decline in sales of noodles over the past few years.

In Denmark, non-Danish food including noodles was once popular among consumers. However, in 2004 and 2005, sales of noodles declined as Danes began turning back to their roots with traditional Danish dishes regaining lost popularity. Although globalisation has brought oriental dishes into the Danish kitchen, it has also led to Danish consumers feeling the need to rediscover their own identity. The move towards traditional dishes offers an avenue through which a certain sense of security and national identity can be achieved. Unfortunately for noodles, this trend is expected to continue in 2006, thus negatively impacting on growth opportunities in the Danish noodles market.

The landscape of the Western European noodles market is very diverse and is in varying stages of development. One size does not fit all: Growth may be dynamic, but tapping into the market requires a country-specific approach.

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Noodles in Italy

Noodles in Finland

Noodles in Germany

Noodles in Ireland

Noodles in the Netherlands