Japan is renowned for its exceptional food culture and Tokyo is the nation’s culinary crown jewel. The capital has been awarded more Michelin stars that any other city in the world for 10 years. Traditional cuisine and fine dining have made Japan’s food world famous, but there’s a less expected element to Japan’s culinary ascendancy: manufactured food.
Perhaps the nation’s most famous food invention — and the one that has caused the most controversy in the Western world — is monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG. Though it is inextricably linked to Chinese food and ostensibly a cause of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG was invented in Japan.
It was created in 1908 by a curious scientist, professor Kikunae Ikeda, trying to replicate the savory taste in his wife’s dashi broth . The key was isolating the amino acid called glutamate. The dried konbu (kelp) his wife used to make the broth contains glutamate and Ikeda realized that glutamate causes the fifth taste sensation, which he named “umami” — a common Japanese word that is usually translated as “savory.”
Ikeda created monosodium glutamate by mixing glutamic acid with ordinary salt and water, which helped stabilize the volatile ingredient. By 1909, MSG was patented and mass-produced, hitting supermarket shelves as Ajinomoto, which translated as “the essence of taste.”
What Ikeda didn’t foresee was that his breakthrough would lead to one of the world’s longest-lasting food controversies. MSG: no other three letters seem capable of provoking a similar level of fear and division among Western diners.
The path MSG took from Japan to the West begins in the early 20th century when the United States began shifting toward industrialized food production. From the mid-1930s to 1941, the United States consumed more Ajinomoto than any other country besides Japan. One of the largest importers was Campbell’s Soup Co. — MSG was a key ingredient in their canned soups.
At the same time, Ikeda’s invention was used in Chinese cooking to enhance broths and vegetarian dishes. After WWII, Americans become more sympathetic toward Chinese immigrants and began exploring U.S. Chinatowns and tasting Chinese food for the first time. Americans were consuming large quantities of MSG through canned and frozen foods, and in Chinese restaurants.
The ’60s saw a consumer revolt against industrialized food in America as pesticides, chemicals and food additives began to attract suspicion. A letter published in an American medical journal in the late ’60s by a Chinese-American doctor was the catalyst of the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” After eating at Chinese restaurants, the doctor wrote, he experienced “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back” and “general weakness and palpitations.” This letter sparked an inundation of responses from readers claiming vaguely similar symptoms. The medical journal blamed MSG and the bad press has not subsided — despite subsequent inconclusive research into the additive’s effects. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United Nations and various government bodies have investigated MSG and deemed it safe. Though MSG still gets a bad rap, umami — which is essentially the essence of MSG — has become a massive food trend in recent years.
In Japan and the rest of Asia, MSG has never been a cause of concern. The panda shaker — the now-iconic container that Ajinomoto is sold in — continues to be a staple on the kitchen table.
Could Ikeda ever have imagined that his wife’s konbu soup would lead to all this?