Umami-bomb or toxic allergen? There are perhaps few condiments as controversial as monosodium glutamate (MSG).
In much of the world, MSG is a beloved ingredient. It’s in stock cubes, snacks and sprinkled on everything from soups to salads, adding a savory flavor sometimes referred to as umami or the “fifth taste.” It was invented in commercial form in Japan by Kikunae Ikeda, who founded the firm Ajinomoto to sell the product at home and abroad.
At Ajinomoto’s factory outside of Tokyo, a steady stream of visitors join tours where they sample miso soup with and without MSG, and snap selfies with the firm’s mascot — the red-and-white AjiPanda. Elsewhere, however, MSG is regarded as less benign, with some detractors dubbing it a “killer condiment” and people reporting side-effects, including headaches, sweats and skin flushing.
The unsavory reputation dates back to a 1968 letter by Chinese American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok printed in the New England Journal of Medicine. Kwok described symptoms he experienced while eating at Chinese restaurants in the U.S., including “numbness at the back of the neck … general weakness and palpitation.” His Chinese friends — “all well educated” — experienced similar sensations, he wrote. He proposed several potential reasons, including soy sauce, cooking wine, MSG and high sodium content, and suggested “friends in the medical field” research this “peculiar syndrome.”
The letter was picked up by the media and made its way into the public imagination, creating a lasting association between MSG and various, poorly defined health effects.
Most scientific research, however, suggests “Chinese restaurant syndrome” is a myth.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration labels MSG “generally recognized as safe,” the same as salt, corn syrup or caffeine. Authorities in Europe, Australia and elsewhere also rate it safe to consume.
“The long-standing claim that the intake of MSG in food causes ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ in humans is unfounded,” says Guoyao Wu, a professor of animal science at Texas A&M University who has studied MSG.
Some of the experiments suggesting MSG is harmful involved administering huge doses or injecting the compound directly into muscle or brain tissue.
“Well-controlled scientific experiments have not shown any adverse effects of oral MSG … on healthy people or relevant animal models,” Wu says.
That’s the message that Ajinomoto is now pushing in a $10-million, three-year PR blitz.
“There’s really no doubt that it’s a safe food ingredient,” insists Tia M. Rains, who is heading up Ajinomoto’s campaign. The message is directed primarily at the U.S., where the firm has staged a “World Umami Forum” and enlisted food experts to sway public opinion.
MSG was once popular with American cooks, sold under the brand Accent. Now Ajinomoto mostly sells directly to businesses, which use MSG in popular products such as potato chips and salad dressings.
The PR project comes with a shift already underway in the Western food world. Not only is the concept of umami well-established, but authorities, including food science writer Harold McGee and Michelin-starred chef David Chang, have pushed back against the idea that MSG is dangerous.
In Japan, there isn’t much of a debate about the product, says Kazumi Masuda, who runs the cooking school Tokyo Cook. Her students are taught to extract umami from traditional ingredients, including konbu seaweed, but she sees no harm in using MSG-laden stock cubes, particularly for busy home cooks.
“There’s not a big argument (about it). More (people) have the image that if you use MSG, then it’s like cheating,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t use it every week, but I think many Japanese families use it more often.”
Rains argues that MSG could even have health benefits, as it can help people cut down on salt. But Ka He, a professor of reproductive science and epidemiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, urges caution.
“Safety and health are two different concepts,” says He, who has also studied MSG. “Sugar is safe but it may not be healthy, trans fat is not toxic but sufficient scientific evidence indicates that it’s a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.”
Rains says Ajinomoto doesn’t expect to convert everyone, but hopes an umami overhaul might open some eyes.
“We’re not trying to hide behind the umami,” she says, “but make that connection for people, that they’re one and the same.”