How harmful is Ajinomoto?

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You may see the board ‘We don’t use Ajinomoto in our food’ hanging in some eateries and fancy restaurants in Kerala. Ajinomoto or monosodium glutamate has gained notoriety in the culinary world as a controversial ingredient.

However, one cannot help but wonder why the extremely popular ingredient has not been banned despite the entire hullabaloo about its ill effects or why a majority of restaurants still use them in their dishes if it is harmful to health. The vilest among the countless rumours and lies about Ajinomoto is that it could affect the reproductive system of human beings thereby making them sterile.

Such rumours, that have no scientific backing whatsoever, are being spread like wildfire. Numbers reveal that China uses monosodium glutamate in most of their dishes as a flavoursome seasoning. However, China has the highest population in the world, with healthy kids being born to healthy parents. So, the above rumour clearly stands in contradiction with this fact. 

Ajinomoto is not an ingredient but is the name of a Japanese company that produces seasonings, cooking oils, frozen food, sweeteners and more. The iconic company that is more than a century old has factories in over 30 countries. Based in Tokyo, Ajinomoto employs more than thirty thousand workers in its various factories all over the world.

Monosodium glutamate or MSG is one of the many items that are sold by the Japanese company. Now, MSG is often called Ajinomoto as well because the company has been producing it for the last 113 years. Monosodium glutamate is a seasoning that is added in dishes to enhance its flavours.

Interestingly, MSG has a strong umami flavour. Though we know about the sweet, salt, spice, sour and bitter tastes, not many are aware of the umami flavour. Be it a humble tomato or the rich meat dishes, they feel as umami on our taste buds. Soy sauce is another popular ingredient that is known for its strong umami flavour. Some studies say that breast milk too has subtle umami flavour making umami one of the first flavours tasted by human beings. Experts surmise that it must be the reason why humans keep going back to that flavour, be it in a bucket of American fried chicken or the Chinese noodles.

Interestingly, no country or health organizations have found anything harmful in MSG. In the 1990’s, The US Food and Drug Administration had instructed the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology to study the potential health hazards of using MSG in food. But, they couldn’t find anything harmful in the popular ingredient.

The American government thus declared MSG as a safe ingredient to be used in dishes. The European Food Safety Authority too has found out that MSG is safe and fit to be consumed. However, it is quite intriguing that MSG has been vilified here when the above authorities, that are very strict when it comes to food safety and standardization, has given MSG a clean chit. 

Some people say that pregnant women shouldn’t eat food that is flavoured with MSG as it contains a high amount of sodium. Usually, around half a gram of MSG is added in a meal that is consumed by a person.

Though not validated by the governmental agencies, there are study reports that suggest that if MSG is consumed six times more than the prescribed amount could cause side effects like a severe headache in some people. Interestingly, people are scared of MSG more than processed sugar and salt that could affect health if consumed too much. 

In 1968, Dr Ho Man Kwok, in an article written in the New England journal of medicine expressed some doubts about the possible side effects of MSG. This prompted various government agencies to study about MSG. Some people saw this as an opportunity to unleash lies and false rumours about the ingredient so that they could destroy the reputation of some of the popular Asian restaurants in America.

Unhealthy competition to dominate the market and attempts to take over the booming business of the Asian restaurants succeeded in sowing the seeds of doubt and fear in the consumers’ minds. Meanwhile, some tried to benefit by coming up with ‘no MSG cookbooks’ that became instant bestsellers.

The BBC too had reported on how ‘viral’ these rumours were. Restaurants had to exhibit boards, declaring that they do not use MSG in their food, to attract customers. Though multiple studies and agencies have ‘acquitted’ MSG, the rumours haven’t died down completely.

(The writer is a restaurant consultant and noted blogger. Opinions are personal.)

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