Over a century ago, Japanese seasoning company Ajinomoto found itself entangled in a bizarre rumor — that its flagship monosodium glutamate (MSG) product, Aji-No-Moto, was concocted from snakes.
Flavor enhancer: First developed in 1908 by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda, MSG is known to enhance food’s flavor by complementing its other tastes. The bizarre myth that the seasoning was made from snakes emerged within a decade of it hitting store shelves in 1909.
While the origins of the claim remain shrouded in mystery, one of its earlier accounts was a cartoon published in the Oct. 1, 1919, issue of the magazine Aka, reported SoraNews24. The cartoon depicted a bowl of Aji-No-Moto with snakes slithering through it. Ajinomoto immediately denied the insinuation, but the belief persisted in the years that followed.
Quashing a myth: The rumor became so widespread that, in 1922, Ajinomoto ran newspaper advertisements to counter it. “We hereby swear to all the world that snakes are not used in the production of Aji no Moto,” the company’s director and co-founder, Saburosuke Suzuki, announced in the ad.
In addition to such ads, the company organized public tastings, employing performers called “chindon-ya” to improve the product’s image, as detailed in a company press release in 2017.
What it’s actually made of: According to the company’s website, Aji-No-Moto was originally extracted from wheat through gluten hydrolysis at the time the rumor emerged. The product has since gone through several changes and is now produced through fermentation, using sugar cane and other similar plants.
More false narratives: Another unfounded idea emerged in 1968 when a letter from a certain Dr. H.M. Kwok to the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that MSG caused “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” associated with symptoms of numbness, weakness and palpitations. This unfounded notion led to many Chinese restaurants putting up “No MSG” signs. Extensive research would eventually scientifically establish that if Chinese restaurant syndrome does exist, it is not related to MSG.
A study published in 1969 involved high doses of MSG injected into newborn mice, leading to brain lesions. This study was later proven to be flawed as it used extremely high doses of MSG and overlooked a significant physiological difference between mice and humans — the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from certain substances in the bloodstream.
The safety of MSG: Other studies through the years have consistently concluded that MSG is safe, with major international regulatory bodies publicly affirming the point. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare approved MSG as a food additive in 1948, followed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 10 years later.
The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, formed by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, also confirmed the safety of MSG in infants, leading to a 1987 conclusion that MSG usage need not be restricted in infants of any age. A significant investigation in 1995 further reaffirmed MSG’s safety for the general population at normally consumed levels, finding no evidence connecting MSG to any serious, long-term medical problems.