If you’re wondering what the umami flavor is, be confused no more

Umami is often described as that marvelous flavor experience you get when foods are at their peak, or served with a little something that gives the taste buds a boost to enhance that already delicious flavor.

Kikunae Ikeda discovered that little something early in the 20th century when he realized that pairing foods with a touch of seaweed could create a desirable taste sensation. It has also been observed by foodies that there is something about mushrooms and tomatoes that accomplishes the same thing. Start with good fresh food, pair it with seaweed, mushrooms, or tomatoes, and with those flavor-enhancers you can get heaven on a plate.

There are other ways to make food tasty. Garlic and onions have been recognized for centuries along with a multitude of other spices and seasonings. But they aren’t flavor enhancers. They don’t improve the flavor of foods, they simply add to it.

Ikeda, who was a chemist, did more than just notice the flavor-enhancing capacity of seaweed. That something else he found was chemically analyzed, put into a bottle, patented, and is now known as monosodium glutamate or MSG. Ikeda had discovered that it was glutamate, an amino acid found in considerable quantity in seaweed, that gave taste buds a boost, enhancing the flavor of foods seaweed was paired with.

The story of how that works differs depending on the source. Is it being told by those who profit from the sale of MSG, or by independent scientists? Ajinomoto has developed a PR narrative built around changing MSG’s identify from a pre-1969 flavor-enhancer to a post-2000 fifth taste. According to Ajinomoto, MSG has a taste of its own. According to Ajinomoto, there are MSG receptors just as there are receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Independent scientists are more likely to point out that what Ajinomoto’s people refer to as MSG-receptors, are actually glutamate receptors. Glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter, stimulates glutamate receptors in the mouth and on the tongue causing the cells on which those receptors are located to swell, so to speak. And these larger, swollen surfaces triggered by MSG stimulation cause food consumed with MSG to be perceived as having a “bigger” taste than it would otherwise.

In 1969, John W. Olney, M.D., published the first of several papers that detailed the facts of MSG-induced toxicity. A year earlier, the New England Journal of Medicine had published a letter titled “Chinese-restaurant Syndrome.” Since that time Ajinomoto has worked vigorously to refute the findings of Olney and others or simply make sure they don’t have public exposure, downplay the reactions reported by individuals who are poisoned by MSG, or do whatever else is necessary to convince consumers that MSG is a harmless product. (That subject is dealt with in detail elsewhere.)

Possibly Ajinomoto’s most successful marketing tool has been to pair the acronym “MSG” with the word “umami.” Just as Pavlov’s dogs learned to anticipate food when a bell was sounded, so are humans being conditioned to associate the feel-good word “umami” with the food additive MSG.

Responding to the growing awareness that the ingredient called monosodium glutamate causes obesity and infertility, along with adverse reactions like tachycardia, migraine headache, asthma, and seizures, Ajinomoto has been striving to fool consumers by giving that ingredient a new name. Don’t reduce its toxicity (if indeed that could be done). Just covertly rebrand MSG.

The rebranding process has evolved slowly, and because Ajinomoto’s narrative changes from time to time depending on the PR firm employed and the marketing plan being executed, the details are not necessarily crystal clear. In hindsight it appears that the first step was to get people to believe that monosodium glutamate was more than the flavor enhancer previously described by Ajinomoto in food encyclopedias. That was before the game plan was changed to get people to believe that monosodium glutamate was a basic taste, and that there were specific taste receptors for MSG in the human body.

To facilitate that change, researchers were encouraged to conduct studies underwritten (directly or indirectly) by Ajinomoto for the purpose of finding something from which they could conclude the MSG had a taste of its own. Discussion of that research is beyond the scope of this paper, but it consists in large part of doing multiple studies, publishing only the one in a hundred that comes out as desired by industry and reporting none of the others. There are indeed numbers of published studies that Ajinomoto will point to as evidence that MSG is a fifth taste. (There are also published studies that Ajinomoto will point to as evidence that MSG is a harmless food additive – studies that included use of placebos containing excitotoxic aspartic acid which causes brain damage and adverse reactions identical to that caused by the excitotoxic glutamic acid component of MSG.) And there are no studies that would dispute the industry-sponsored ones because, at least in part, there would be no funding for such research.

With studies alleging that MSG has a taste of its own, different from salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, wordsmiths began spinning industry’s tale. Slowly, in story after story, MSG would be referred to as an ingredient – like sugar and salt are ingredients. Not a flavor enhancer. An ingredient with a taste of its own.

And then that ingredient, which had, and still has a bad name, would be rebranded. The new name would be “umami,” a word that has been in the Japanese vocabulary for over a century meaning “delicious taste.”

Today, the word “umami” means different things to different people. A chef concerned with use of wholesome ingredients may brag that his creations are flavorful — are the essence of umami.

But to those who manufacture and sell MSG, “umami” is a marketing tool used to sell their product. Clearly lots of people have bought into Ajinomoto’s story (or maybe it’s more correct to say that Ajinomoto has bought lots of people). But if you delve deeply into market reports, or have friends in the industry, you will find that their propaganda isn’t working the way they had anticipated, and Ajinomoto is losing money.

The rigged research, the deceptive and misleading statements, and the bold-faced lies haven’t stemmed the tide of reports of MSG-induced reactions. Not even Edelman’s multimillion-dollar campaign to clear MSG’s bad name seems to have made a difference. It will be interesting to see how quickly chefs and other celebrities who now talk about “umami” realize that they are being used by Ajinomoto to promote a toxic product.

If you have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you. If you have hints for others on how to avoid exposure to MfG, send them along, too, and we’ll put them up on Facebook. Or you can reach us at questionsaboutmsg@gmail.com and follow us on Twitter @truthlabeling.