This Singaporean Startup Has Reinvented the Instant Noodle
There are 300,000 edible plant species but in 2018, just four crops made up half of global production, and three — rice, maize, and wheat — accounted for 86% of all exports.
Christoph Langwallner, co-founder and CEO of WhatIF Foods, wants to change that. His startup is on a mission to diversify the food system with an environmentally-friendly crop that Langwallner says can restore degraded land, cut water consumption, improve our diet and increase food security: the Bambara groundnut.
Hardy and drought-resistant, the Bambara groundnut is a type of legume — the same food family as peanuts, peas, and beans — that originates from West Africa, but is now cultivated across the continent and in Asia.
As a legume, it enriches the soil with nitrogen, which helps to fertilize other crops. It’s also a “complete food” that’s high in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber, providing essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. A traditional ingredient in indigenous African cuisine, the crop has largely been traded and consumed locally — until now.
WhatIF Foods, based in Singapore, processes the Bambara groundnut into its signature “BamNut” flour which it uses in instant noodles, soups and shakes. Langwallner hopes to create a new market for the crop, and “make the Bambara groundnut part of the system.”
Langwallner, who has worked with food tech firms in the past, says he saw an opportunity to introduce the unfamiliar groundnut through a familiar product: instant noodles. In 2020, more than 116 billion portions of the fast food were consumed.
WhatIF launched its noodles in Singapore in 2020, replacing the deep frying process used in conventional instant noodle production with a healthier method similar to air frying.
This proprietary technique reduces the fat content of WhatIF’s noodles and avoids the use of palm oil, an ingredient linked to deforestation, and soil and water pollution, says Langwallner. The noodles also contain more fiber and protein than conventional wheat-based instant noodles.
Priced at up to $2.50 per portion, WhatIF’s noodles are more expensive than products from industry stalwarts like Nissin and Indomie — but Langwallner is betting on a willingness from eco-conscious consumers, particularly the millennial and Gen-Z market, to pay more for a sustainable product.
Despite being highly nutritious and good for the soil, Bambara groundnuts are grown on a very small scale: annual production in Africa is reported to be just 0.3 million tons — a negligible amount compared to 776.6 million metric tons of wheat produced globally last year.
That’s because the Bambara groundnut is not grown as a primary crop says Victoria Jideani, a food science professor at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa. Farmers grow it to help fertilize the soil, and the resulting produce is eaten and sold locally, she says.