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Ajinomoto pushes for umami overhaul for much-maligned MSG

Tokyo

UMAMI bomb or toxic allergen? There are perhaps few condiments as controversial as MSG, but scientists say it is safe - and now a Japanese firm is trying to give it a reputation overhaul.

In much of the world, monosodium glutamate or MSG is a beloved ingredient. It is in stock cubes and potato chips, and sprinkled on everything from soups to salads, adding a savoury flavour 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 Tokyo, 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.

But elsewhere, the substance has a darker reputation. Articles dub it the "killer condiment" and people who consume it report side-effects such as headaches, sweats and flushing.

The unsavoury reputation dates back to a 1968 letter in the New England Journal of Medicine by Chinese-American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok. He described symptoms he experienced while eating at Chinese restaurants in the US, including "numbness at the back of the neck ... general weakness and palpitation". His Chinese friends - "all well-educated" - felt similar sensations, he wrote.

He proposed potential reasons, including soy sauce, cooking wine, MSG, or high sodium content, and called for medical research to be done.

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.

But most scientific research suggests "Chinese restaurant syndrome" is a myth. The US Food and Drug Administration labels MSG "generally recognised as safe" - just like salt, corn syrup or caffeine. The authorities in Europe, Australia and elsewhere also rate it safe to consume.

Wu Guoyao, a professor of animal science at Texas A&M University who has studied MSG, said: "The long-standing claim that intake of MSG in food causes 'Chinese restaurant syndrome' in humans is unfounded." Some of the experiments suggesting MSG is harmful involve administering big 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," he said.

This is the message Ajinomoto is now pushing in a US$10-million, three-year public relations blitz. Tia M. Rains, who heads the campaign, said: "There's really no doubt that it's a safe food ingredient."

The message is directed primarily at the US, where the firm has staged the World Umami Forum and enlisted food experts to sway public opinion.

MSG was once popular with American cooks, sold under the Accent brand, but now Ajinomoto mostly sells direct to businesses, which use it in products from chips to salad dressings.

The project comes with a shift already underway in the Western food world. Umami is not only an established concept, but authorities from food-science writer Harold McGee to Michelin-starred chef David Chang have pushed back against the idea that it is dangerous.

There is not much of a debate about the product in Japan, said Kazumi Masuda, who runs the Tokyo Cooks cooking school. Her students are taught to extract umami from traditional ingredients, including kombu (kelp) seaweed, but she sees no harm in using MSG-laden stock cubes, particularly for busy home cooks. "MSG, there's not a big argument. We more have the image that if you use MSG, then it's like cheating," she said. She added that MSG could even enable people to eat less salt.

But Ka He, a professor of reproductive science and epidemiology at Columbia University's Irving Medical Centre who has studied MSG, urges caution on that.

"Safety and health are two different concepts. 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."

Ms Rains said Ajinomoto does not expect to convert everyone, but hopes an umami overhaul might open some eyes. "We're not trying to hide behind the umami, but to make that connection for people, that they're one and the same." AFP