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Eat Your Fiber: Japanese Rayon Maker Turning to Noodles

Shirataki noodles

A growing number of companies are turning fruit into fibers, but one Japanese fabric maker is doing the opposite—using rayon technology to create noodles.

Osaka-based Omikenshi, which has been in the textile business for nearly a century, is best known for making the cellulose-based raw material, rayon, from tree pulp. Now, as demand for the fiber continues to decline, the company is setting its sights on a more promising prize: the health food market, worth 1.2 trillion yen (roughly $9.7 billion) in 2013, according to Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency.

“We’re entering the food business,” Takashi Asami, manager at Omikenshi’s strategic material development department, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Demand for diet food is strong and looks promising.”

By comparison, the domestic textile market is overloaded and under pressure by rising imports, he said.

So, Omikenshi is shifting gears to survive. The company has figured out how to turn cellulose into a pulp that’s then mixed with konjac (a yam-like root vegetable that’s usually used to make traditional shirataki noodles) to create a fiber-rich flour. Called “cell-eat,” it’s gluten- and fat-free and extremely low in carbohydrate.

And Omikenshi is taking its latest endeavor very seriously: it plans to spend about one billion yen (or $8.1 million) on a cell-eat production facility in its Kakogawa textile plant in the Hyogo prefecture and is talking with several food companies.

“It can be used as a substitute for wheat in products ranging from ramen, pasta, and Chinese dumplings,” Asami said. “We are discussing exporting it to China in the future as obesity is becoming a major problem for children there.”

He told Bloomberg that production will start next year at 30 tons per month.

Using cellulose in food is nothing new. As a Quartz article in June 2014 pointed out, the fiber can be found in menu items at Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King.