But most scientific research suggests “Chinese restaurant syndrome” is a myth.
The US 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 intake of MSG in food causes ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ in humans is unfounded,” Guoyao Wu, a professor of animal science at Texas A&M University who has studied MSG, told AFP.
Some of the experiments suggesting MSG is harmful involve 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 said.
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 US, 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. But now Ajinomoto mostly sells directly to businesses, which put MSG in popular products from potato chips to salad dressings.
The project comes with a shift already underway in the Western food world.
Not only is umami a well-established concept, but authorities from food science writer Harold McGee to Michelin-starred chef David Chang have pushed back against the idea that MSG is dangerous.