In Ajinomoto's 2020 report, president and CEO Takaaki Nishii said, "We have seen positive effects from our awareness raising activities launched in full-scale from 2018. In a survey in the United States, more than 60% of people (based on annual consumer perception surveys conducted by the company), mainly dieticians, had a positive view of MSG, and there is a growing move to adopt MSG in menu items by major restaurant chains and plant-based meat substitutes."
Ajinomoto's latest consumer education campaign, 'Know MSG', is building on this consumer knowledge about not only the safety of MSG in food applications, but also its versatility, said Tia Rains, VP of customer engagement & strategic development at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America.
Considered GRAS (generally recognized as a safe) by the FDA and approved as a food additive in Europe, few food ingredients have been as maligned as MSG, which was discovered in 1908 as a flavor enhancer and sodium reduction tool, said Rains.
MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, is a seasoning made up of the amino acid glutamate (naturally present in tomatoes, mushrooms, aged cheeses and meats) and sodium that delivers an umami flavor, a taste profile rising in popularity in the US. It is produced on a commercial scale via the bacterial fermentation of sugars.
Despite its original roots as an ingredient to help people enjoy their food more, particularly vegetables and proteins, the man-made ingredient has been criticized for decades - most recently in a citizen's petition filed by the nonprofit Truth in Labeling Campaign - for its purported link to neurodegenerative effects.
"The fact that the ingredient list unfairly maligned MSG back in the late 60s based on nothing but a letter to the editor of a journal (describing his personal account of the headaches he felt after dining at a Chinese restaurant), was a challenge for the company because the spirit of launching this ingredient was for health and enjoyment of food and there’s never been any [reputable] scientific study that linked it to some sort ill effects," claimed Rains.
Concerns over MSG's negative health impacts prompted the FDA to conduct an analysis of the adverse reactions to the ingredient in the 1990s, to which the agency concluded that MSG is safe to consume.
On its website today, the FDA states: "Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions."
Launched in December 2020, Ajinomoto's 'Know MSG' campaign is an extension of its efforts to "set the record straight on MSG" by re-educating consumers about the science and facts of the ingredient beginning with addressing its safety.
"We have a vested interest in making sure people understand what this ingredient is and what it does. It wasn’t until 2018, and they wanted to more aggressively get out there with the truth and makes sure people understood the facts about this ingredient," Rains told FoodNavigator-USA, explaining the impetus for its 'Know MSG' campaign.
On Ajinomoto's website dedicated to the 'Know MSG' campaign, the company shares links to scientific studies investigating MSG's safety and the FDA's GRAS stance on the ingredient.
"We’re seeing that we can shift people towards the positive once they understand the flavor potential and then understand that it can be used to reduce sodium. All of a sudden, people are warmly embracing this ingredient and becoming advocates," said Rains.
Today MSG can be found in a number of food products from savory snacks to marinades and soups, but its growth as a widely-used ingredient in the US market has been hamstrung as it remains on the ‘unacceptable ingredients’ list at retailers including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Kroger (simple Truth), H.E.B (Select Ingredients), Aldi (Simply Nature), and several other high profile retailers.
"We’ve had discussions with some retailers sharing the science to reconsider what they think about MSG and what it means to their consumer in having it one of these ‘no no’ lists when the science is not there to support it," said Rains.
And while slow-going, Rains said that retailers are at least "willing to have that conversation with us."
"I think that it’s going to be the consumers that are going to be questioning or calling out some of these retailers for putting MSG in a box that it doesn’t belong in," she said.
New future for MSG?
Kim Pham, co-founder of Omsom, a "proud and loud" Asian-American meal starter brand, has adopted the 'Know MSG' symbol on one of its meal starter products, Thai chili basil Krapow.
"For us, MSG is actually something deeply personal and that we've longed cared about," said Pham, who founded the company with her sister Vanessa, both first generation Vietnamese-Americans and daughters of immigrants.
"It’s impossible to talk about Asian American food without mentioning MSG. We’ve long been beating the drum that MSG is 100% safe."
'During our childhood I always felt like my mom had shame internalized from using this ingredient'
Pham describes feeling conflicted about the ingredient that was so prevalent in her family's home cooking but prominently excluded in Asian restaurants and menus with the growing use of 'No MSG' stamps.
"During our childhood I always felt like my mom had shame internalized from using this ingredient and I remember feeling embarrassed by that," said Pham.
As an adult, Pham and her sister are rebutting this internalized sentiment.
"For so many years, so many generations of Asian-American immigrants have had to put that 'No MSG' on their restaurants or their menus out of a place of survival really... New gen brands have been handed a set of assumptions about the world that are outdated, and I think MSG is one of them."
'Positive growth in MSG sales over the last several years'
Rains said that the company is in conversations with other brands interested in using the 'Know MSG' symbol on its products, but couldn't comment on specifics.
Commenting on if Ajinomoto is receiving renewed interest from US manufacturers, Rains said, "We don’t even really sell a mainstream MSG product in the US, but we are seeing from an industrial supplier standpoint positive growth in MSG sales over the last several years."
While currently predominantly used in savory snacks, soups, sauces, and marinades, Rains commented on the ingredient's potential in plant-based meat alternatives as a flavor-boosting and sodium reduction tool.
"We’re looking forward to a future where it can be used as a sodium reduction tool and as an umami seasoning without the fear that’s come with it in the past," she said.