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Is Instant Ramen a New (Prison) Currency?

Categories : Cash is the most widely used product
April 11, 2024
Tags : Means of Exchange, Prison Currency, Ramen, United States
Instant noodles are becoming increasingly popular worldwide. In U.S. prisons, they have supplanted tobacco, stamps, and pre-paid cards as a form of money.
Guillaume Lepecq

Chair, CashEssentials

This post is also available in: Spanish

A 6.2 Billion Kilometre Giga-Noodle

“If the entire (cooked) length of instant noodles sold around the world in a single year were laid out in a line, the resulting 6.2bn kilometer giga-noodle would stretch well beyond Pluto and into the depths of space. It is a fact as miserable as it is marvelous.” reports the Financial Times. In comparison, if all the world’s banknotes were aligned lengthwise, the distance would merely reach around 78 million kilometers, less than a third of the distance to Mars.

According to the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA), over 121 billion servings of instant noodles were sold in 2022. That is slightly less than the estimated number of banknotes printed each year, roughly 150 billion pieces, but it is close. In 2016, I wrote that banknotes were possibly the most widely used product in the world. The statement has yet to be challenged, but instant noodles seem to be a close second.

Beyond the global volume, the ranking of countries by demand illustrates another feature common to banknotes and noodles: universality. The WINA ranks 56 countries by the number of servings sold; as expected, the top five are Asian (China, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and Japan). However, the USA is 6th, Brazil is 10th, Nigeria is 11th, and Russia is 12th.

Banknotes and noodles also have similar origins. The first paper currency is generally attributed to the Tang dynasty, which ruled China in the 7th century. Noodles were first mentioned in a 6th-century agricultural book, Qimin Yaoshu, also in China. The first instant noodles, Chicken Ramen, were invented in 1958 in Japan.

WINA highlights another feature shared by banknotes and noodles: their essential role in disaster recovery. The association’s website emphasizes numerous cases of donations of instant noodles as emergency rations in disaster-hit areas. Recent events include the earthquake in Morocco, the wildfires in Hawaii, the earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Despite these similarities, instant noodles do not qualify as money in the economic sense. They are neither a medium of exchange, a store of value, nor a measure of value.

Ramen is the New Prison Currency

However, instant noodles have become the new prison currency in the US. Ramen has now replaced the once-popular image of the cigarette as a form of currency. Inmates trade them for sweatshirts, toothpaste, and cleaning services. “They gamble with it. They even fight over it. Instant ramen, the tasty, cheap, and everlasting noodle packet, has replaced tobacco as the most popular form of currency in many US prisons,” according to an article by Michael Gibson Light, published in the journal Qualitative Sociology in 2018.

Several items are banned in prison because they may raise the probability of escape or violence. This includes weapons, drugs, alcohol, lighters, and mobile phones. But seemingly innocent articles are also subject to bans: marmite as it contains yeast and may be used for brewing; chewing gum as it can be used to imprint a key; cash as it could encourage bribery.

Cigarettes, postage stamps, and pre-paid cards have all been used as medium of exchange in prison in recent history. In his 1945 article “The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp,” British economist R.A. Radford recounted his experiences within the informal barter system among prisoners at Stalag VII-A, a German camp on the outskirts of Munich during the Second World War. Using supplies delivered by the Red Cross, some prisoners moved between different nationalities’ encampments, buying tea for cheap from the French (who tended to prefer coffee) and then selling it to the British (whose affection for tea is a matter of centuries-old lore). Meanwhile, imprisoned Gurkha soldiers from South Asia sought out tins of vegetables and bartered them for corned beef.

Much like cash, says Gibson-Light, a single noodle packet can store value for some time, act as a standardized unit of account, and be easily exchanged for services and goods between buyers and sellers. Gibson-Light outlined several factors that make an excellent prison currency: It should be durable and portable, a “highly demanded commodity,” relatively easy to get, and can be eaten or turned into something “useful.”

Using ramen—and other commodities—as a form of prison currency illustrates the diversity in the existing forms of money. In cases where no other forms of public or private money are available, new means of exchange can be created; however, they are far from providing the same social benefits as cash: financial and social inclusion, economic stabilization, the resilience of the payments system, and protection of privacy.

This post is also available in: Spanish