Instant ramen, soups, premade “just add meat” meals, frozen gyoza, microwavable cheese in hamburgers; what do they all have in common? Yes, they are all delicious, but they also contain a healthy amount of MSG!
Healthy? Isn’t MSG bad for you? Searching the internet for scientific data proved to be more difficult than I thought. My research brought up instances of people going to Chinese buffets in the United States and coming out with a headache, or experiments that included injecting lab mice with large doses of MSG and watching the side effects. But living in Japan, I had to find out from the source, from the largest manufacturer of MSG in the world; Ajinomoto. The factory is located in Kawasaki, and they were offering free tours to the public.
Arriving at the Factory
Ajinomoto means “The essence of taste” mostly in the form of the chemicals that they manufacture which creates the taste of umami. What does umami taste like? Well, it doesn’t taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or spicy. It’s in between, it’s magical, and makes everything taste better.
Found in front of Suzukicho Station.
Getting off at Suzukichō Station, I was wondering, where should I go from here? What direction should I go? Where are the signs for the entrance to this wonderful world of Ajinomoto? As I looked down at my feet, I saw tracks. Panda tracks.
Bloody red panda tracks.
This poor thing must have been in a horrible accident. Disregarding my desire to find out the mysteries of umami, I tried to track down this injured bear. Following the blood red panda tracks actually led up to the entrance of the MSG factory. We entered the building and there it was.
Aji-kun poses for a picture
An Albino panda named Aji-kun. Why is he red?
The Factory Tour
Turns out he was very photogenic, and only wanted to teach us about how the chemicals in food makes it taste better. We followed him first into a large white room where they showed a no-camera-allowed 360 degree projection movie about the history of Ajinomoto. The room was so interactive you can feel the wind in the sugarcane fields and the smell of the ocean where the seaweed with the chemically induced taste of umami was first discovered.
At this point, depending on which color badge you received, you could go on to create the taste of umami by shaving a fish, or… you can be led into the factory room to create your own bottle of MSG.
After the movie, there was another educational lesson on a live moving diorama about the processing of MSG.
The Diorama can also play a movie
It also shows little MSG people trapped in a silo
After a short no-camera-allowed bus ride, and another no-camera-allowed actual factory tour, you’re brought to a room where you are told to wrap your shoes in plastic, where a white gown, a surgical mask, and a hairnet. You have to make sure you wash your hands really well before you go through the room that blasts the dust off of you. Now you are ready to make your own MSG.
The process was intense. We had a checklist (in Japanese) of serious items like
“Did you put your name down on the inspection paper?” ✓
“Did you remember to put the date down?” ✓
“Did you inventory all three pieces of the bottle?” ✓
“Did you pour between 2.8 and 3.2g of the pre-measured MSG into the bottle?” ✓
“Did you close the cap tightly?” ✓
“Did you do a good job?” ✓
After all of the items are met, there is one last inspection. The quality assurance lady has to come over and make sure you have a check next to each block. She’s very strict so you better not mess up. If you have put at least one check mark in each box, you’ll get a stamp and a thumbs up. Good job! Maybe you didn’t actually make this MSG, but you poured it into a bottle, and you’ve got plenty of official looking pictures to make you look like a professional chemist.
Afterwards, you get to keep the sample of MSG along with a few more samples of Ajinomoto packaged food for you to cook at home.
But is MSG actually bad for you? I was so entertained by the glamour and glossiness of the tour I didn’t even bother to ask. But it made me think. Back home, MSG was most commonly found in powdery brand named chips and salty, oily fast foods. Is the actual MSG seasoning bad for you? Or is it the crappy food that you’re eating that’s bad for you?