BEIJING: China remains by far the largest market for instant noodles in the world, but declining sales have led to speculation over whether this trend signals wider changes in Chinese society.

According to the World Instant Noodle Association, more than 46.2bn packets of instant noodles were sold in China and Hong Kong in 2013. But sales then dropped to 38.5bn packets by 2016, a 17% decline.

Looking to explain the development in a country that – unlike India’s recall of Maggi noodles in 2015 – has not suffered a major food scandal involving noodles, China Daily sounded out expert opinion.

Zhang Xin, associate professor at the Department of Economics and Finance at Tongji University, attributed the decline to demographic change, especially a recent reversal in the number of migrant workers moving to the cities.

What with having to live away from their home towns and villages, and often without decent cooking facilities, migrant workers are one of the largest groups of instant noodle consumers.

Yet China's migrant population decreased for the first time in about 30 years in 2015, leading to 1.7m fewer migrant workers living in cities in 2016, the BBC reported.

Similarly, major improvements to China’s rail infrastructure have cut journey times, so cutting the need for “midnight snacking” during long trips. Train companies are also now offering other options, even including expensive Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

“Trains were once an important market for instant noodles, but railway stations are ordering less and less instant noodles these days,” says Long Shuhai, an instant noodle distributor in Yunnan Province.

And then there are other industry changes taking place, such as the rapid growth of food delivery options – attractive for consumers with bigger disposal incomes – as well as higher expectations about the overall quality of food.

“The decline of instant noodle sales shows a shift in China's consumption patterns,” explained Zhao Ping from the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. “Consumers are more interested in life quality than just filling their bellies these days.”

Sourced from China Daily, BBC; additional content by WARC staff