Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) Under Threat in East and West, but for Vastly Different Reasons

In 2015, retail value sales of packaged food and beverage products with a ‘No Monosodium Glutamate / No MSG’ claim on product packaging totalled US$9.2 billion dollars globally, with the majority of sales of stemming from sauces dressings and condiments. The flavour enhancer has long been viewed with suspicion by particular consumer segments in the West that have been influenced by the abundant literature that puts the ingredient at the scene of the crime when it comes to health effects such as headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions, a condition commonly known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. Correlation does not, or at least should not, imply causation however, and the integrity of much of this literature has been impugned. Dubbed as pseudoscience and quackery by some, the impact has still sparked a notable reaction from some manufacturers that have chosen to label products ‘No MSG’ in an effort to quell any consternation that may be brewing among consumers. Consequently, one might assume that this may have sparked a seismic shift toward alternatives as manufacturers take the high road, avoiding the MSG debate entirely, but this isn’t necessarily the case, at least not on the global level.

A tale of East and West and a battle of fact versus fiction

In the US, leading US herbs and spices player McCormick’s has long followed a strategy aiming to penetrate the health and wellness sphere with its sauces, dressings and condiments offerings. Labelling several of its core products as containing no MSG is one way in which the company has achieved this, generating the highest value sales of products with the claim in the US market, with US$1.2 billion in 2015. Other packaged food leaders are also following this path and making similar reformulations. Rewind to 2008, General Mills stated that it was pulling MSG from all Progresso soup variants, and in 2015, the brand generated sales of US$741 million in 2015 of products bearing the claim.

Generally recognised as safe by the Food and Drug administration since 1959, almost a decade prior to the first reports linking the ingredient to adverse health effects, consumer concern in the US is perpetually reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of these claims on some of the most popular brands in the US market. The presence of the label alone may encourage consumers to adopt a pessimistic stance on the safety of the flavour enhancer and question whether or not it’s an ingredient they feel confident consuming.

Eastern attitudes remain unperturbed by MSG

The negative perception of MSG dissipates the further east you travel. In Poland for instance, MSG in several of Unilever’s Knorr products is positioned in a positive way, as a natural ingredient, which of course it is. Further east again, and China also tells a far different story than the US. Sales of packaged food products bearing a No MSG claims were valued at just US$211 million in 2015 and this will rise to reach by US$364 million by 2020. The majority of sales stem from milk formula, which accounted for US$128 million in 2015. To contextualise this, Chinese consumers eat 94,000 more tonnes of MSG than the next 79 markets combined, and this unconstrained consumption proves in a sense that MSG playing the villain of the story is a narrative that is far from universal. As such, sales of products bearing a ‘No MSG’ claim are barely a blip on the radar of a market that has relied on the flavour enhancer to such a large degree and has not suffered because of it.

However, there is still a move away from the ingredient occurring in China and volume consumption of the ingredient is forecast to decline by 20% by 2020. So is Western paranoia finally beginning to undermine confidence in the Chinese market? The short answer is no. The drop in volume consumption is a by-product of Chinese consumers moving away from the powder ingredient (97.1% of all MSG comes in this format) toward more premium alternatives, such as liquid stocks and fonds. For all intents and purposes, the shift has little to do with fear, the history of high volume consumption acting as an immediate roadblock to any manifestation of unsubstantiated Western-originating concern.

What the future holds for MSG

In brief, it would appear that this concern is just as unlikely to subside in the West as it is to grow in the East. These perspectives have formed and solidified over the 100 years since it was discovered by a Chemistry professor in Tokyo and the 50 years since it was first condemned in the West. Manufacturers in the US and UK may still look to avoid the ingredient where possible, an exercise in social responsibility rather than health effects, while in China, any shift away from MSG will continue to be driven by evolving format preferences over anything else.