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2018-12-14 14:07:18 Commentary

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, might be one of the most widely stigmatized products in the world. What began in the 1960s and ’70s as vague reports of occasional headaches after eating Chinese food — the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome — grew over the years into a widespread fear that the popular additive is a “silent killer.” Even after the World Health Organization and the American Food and Drug Administration both vouched for MSG’s safety, it still routinely shows up on lists of potentially hazardous substances.

Rumors about the supposed dangers of MSG first made their ways to China in the late 1970s, not long after they surfaced in the West, but few paid them much mind. Those days, the average Chinese was more concerned about putting enough food on the table than with what they put in their meals, and MSG was generally welcomed as an effective means of adding flavor to otherwise bland staples like boiled vegetables. More recently, however, concerns over MSG’s safety have begun to reemerge in China, as the country’s rising middle class demands access to healthier foods made from natural ingredients. Meanwhile, a series of food safety scandals has shaken public faith in the food industry as a whole. Unsure of who to trust, diners are proving vulnerable to pseudoscientific claims and clickbait health articles that confirm all their worst fears about the food they eat.

Although there’s no evidence that MSG is dangerous — provided it’s consumed in moderation — I doubt China’s health officials would lose much sleep if the country were to cut back on sodium. Still, the additive’s rise to prominence and potential fall from grace offer a useful window into some of the societal changes that have taken place over the past 40 years, as well as some of the challenges confronting Chinese food producers.

MSG was first produced in Japan during the first decade of the 20th century, and the product quickly caught on across Asia. By the 1920s, Chinese companies had begun setting up their own MSG factories. Decades of civil war, invasion, and upheaval ravaged domestic producers, however, and almost 50 years later, total domestic production was just at 20,000 tons a year.

An old MSG ad is displayed during an exhibition in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 16, 2018. VCG

An old MSG ad is displayed during an exhibition in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 16, 2018. VCG

The industry did not begin to revive until the dawn of the reform and opening-up period in the late ’70s and early ’80s. As the economy steadily gathered steam, MSG production ran alongside it. In 1991, total domestic production reached 340,000 tons a year; by 2001, this figure had almost tripled to 910,000 tons.

The industry’s rapid expansion continued up until 2006, when the country produced over 1.6 million tons of MSG. In the years since, production has largely leveled off, as sales figures have fluctuated from year to year. Still, sales hit a record high in 2013; and, in 2014, China accounted for approximately 65 percent of global MSG production, 55 percent of global consumption, and 44 percent of the world’s MSG exports.

That may have been the industry’s high-water mark. There are growing signs that Chinese consumers are beginning to turn away from MSG amid concerns over health and food safety. According to data from the consulting firm Mintel, more than 40 percent of Chinese consumers in major urban areas in 2018 reported a desire to limit their MSG intakes, making it a bigger target than sugar, salt, or oil. Many restaurants have also started advertising MSG-free menus, and sales have declined steadily since 2013.

On one level, MSG’s fall from grace is the natural outcome of four decades of rapid economic development. Much like other countries also freed from more immediate concerns about getting enough to eat, China’s emerging middle class now has more time to worry about the contents of their food. This isn’t a bad thing: The average Chinese consumes twice the WHO-recommended daily intake of salt, and replacing high-sodium, high-calorie junk food with healthier alternatives could go a long way toward helping the country combat rising obesity rates.

In addition to cutting back on oil, salt, and MSG, middle-class consumers have also shown a willingness to spend more on natural ingredients, including organic vegetables and whole grains. Even some Western “superfoods” have caught on in recent years, as shoppers have raced to stock up on avocados and goji berries.

Such trends are motivated by more than just rising disposable incomes and a desire for higher-end products, however. A 2017 survey revealed that 94 percent of respondents were “extremely concerned” about the safety of their food. Repeated scandals — some of them fatal — have rocked Chinese food producers and made consumers skeptical of any and all processed foods.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of trust in the country’s food safety systems. Not only does this make it harder for officials to educate citizens with scientific facts and evidence, it also leaves room for unofficial outlets to profit by stoking consumer fears. The Chinese internet has become so full of contradictory and inflammatory health advice that it can be difficult for even savvy shoppers to tell fact from fiction.

MSG is a frequent target of such smears. Fears over side effects may not have made much of an impact in the ’70s and ’80s, but they’ve resurfaced with a vengeance over the past few years. And if anything, they’ve amplified with time. No longer content with blaming it for mild issues like Chinese restaurant syndrome, self-proclaimed experts online now claim MSG causes everything from baldness to cancer.

‘Jijing.’ 500px Select/VCG

‘Jijing.’ 500px Select/VCG

In an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, industry attempts to rehabilitate MSG have proven singularly ineffective. No matter how often media or health organizations publish reports declaring it safe, consumers continue to harbor doubts.

Anti-MSG sentiment is having a ripple effect on the seasoning industry as a whole. With MSG out of favor, shoppers have flocked instead to jijing, a common MSG substitute made from chicken extract. Widely seen as a healthier alternative to MSG, jijing sales between 2011 and 2016 grew by an average of almost 20 percent a year. Sensing an opportunity, advertisers started touting its supposed natural properties. Jijing product packaging prominently features pictures of chickens, for example, in an apparent attempt to convince customers that it is an animal byproduct, rather than a chemical one.

In reality, jijing is roughly 40 percent MSG, with other seasonings mixed in. While some may find it has a richer flavor, there’s no evidence that it’s any healthier than MSG. Like MSG, there’s no evidence it’s harmful, either, but if consumers mistakenly believe that they’ve found a low-risk alternative, they could end up consuming more sodium than they realize — which could have a negative impact on their health.

Although MSG’s peak may have passed, it’s not in danger of disappearing from store shelves any time soon. Still, its current market struggles point to broader problems in the Chinese food industry. Consumer tastes are changing rapidly, and shoppers are tired of repeated safety lapses and have become increasingly skeptical of what they’re being told about the food they’re eating. Improving the country’s health will require rebuilding public trust in the country’s food producers, and MSG might just be the place to start.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell

(Header image: A cook uses MSG at home in Yichang, Hubei province, Aug. 6, 2013. Liu Junfeng/VCG)