Featured image for Ajinomoto Campaign Urges Everyone To 'Know MSG'

Ajinomoto Campaign Urges Everyone To 'Know MSG'

by Bill McCool on 01/11/2021 | 5 Minute Read

Some food rules are undeniable truths. 

For instance, you can’t fill your disgusting mouth hole with spaghetti and meatballs, carbonara, or risotto without a heaping dose of parmesan. Your Caesar salad dressing isn’t really a Caesar salad dressing unless there are anchovies in it. In the summertime, the only thing that belongs sandwiched on mayo-slathered bread is a tomato.

And what do parmesan, anchovies, and tomatoes have in common? Well, we hate to break it to you, but MSG occurs naturally in all three. 

Yes, that MSG. The food additive that’s frowned upon by plenty of folks because, at some point, someone told them that MSG was bad for them. And they accepted it to be true because why wouldn’t it be? Now, a new campaign from Ajinomoto, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of MSG, wants to dispel the myths and assumptions long associated with the flavor enhancer, and they’ve enlisted the likes of Zipeng Zhu of NYC creative studio Dazzle, Pepper Teigen, and upstart Asian food brand Omsom to replace the archaic and outdated “No MSG” symbol dubbed Know MSG.

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And why? For starters, it makes things fucking delicious. It’s that beautiful thing all your silly foodie pals tell you about—umami—that rich, savory taste that gives depth and character to foods (and, yes, even meaning and purpose). MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, and it's a food additive, that heady combination of sodium and glutamate regarded as the fifth taste, the one that comes after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It’s even in breast milk, which might explain why we’re so hardwired to its flavor-enhancing properties in the first place.

But here’s the problem. That “No MSG” sticker you’ll find on packaging or menus in restaurants? It’s xenophobic.

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It all starts with what came to be known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” a not-an-actual-phenomenon-at-all that came about in 1968 after a letter to a medical journal listed the sender's ailments after eating Chinese food. They described them as “numbness in the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness, and palpitation.” It was pure speculation, and the writer blamed the general illness on the ingredients in the meal. From then on, MSG came to be associated with eating Chinese food.

But here’s the thing—it’s safe to consume, and it’s FDA approved, in addition to being plant-derived and made via fermentation. What’s more, there’s no such thing. A recent 2019 study from Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety found that symptoms like headaches, sweating, and nausea from eating foods with MSG was anecdotal and unfounded.

Or, as Anthony Bourdain bluntly put it on an episode of the Sichuan, China episode of Parts Unknown, “You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism. ‘Ooh, I have a headache; it must have been the Chinese guy.’"

“MSG is in almost everything that we think is delicious,” says designer Zipeng Zhu. “If you eat Doritos, you are getting way more MSG than with Chinese takeout.” 

For Zipeng, his participation in the project was personal, and he jumped at the chance to be involved. The Chinese-born designer has lived in the states for 11 years, working at Pentagram and Sagmeister & Walsh, and he’s certainly experienced his fair share of xenophobia and racism (and hello, 2020, for that matter). But what was surprising to him was the more subtle ways he would experience it through food and culture. It wasn’t uncommon for him to hear someone say they couldn’t eat Chinese food as it would give them a headache. He also lived above a Chinese restaurant in the city, and he would often go there for a drink, and he would hear customers order food, asking to make sure there was no MSG in the food.

“That’s what truly shocked me to my core,” he says, “how it's an embedded default connotation of what the food from my culture represents.” 

Editorial photograph
Editorial photograph

The process started with the name itself and a pun. “My initial idea was that the logo and inspiration should come from the original ‘No MSG’ symbol," Zipeng says. "Around the symbol, we added the three key facts that we really want people to walk away with—that it’s plant-based, backed by science, and made solely through fermentation.”

For the typeface, they needed something welcoming and friendly, but that would also stand out. “We use Cooper Black for two reasons,” Zipeng adds. "It's one of the few typefaces that are so bold and chunky, but it never looks like it's screaming at you, you know?” It’s that approachability and even the winking nod from the pun that gives the logo its character, and yeah, it would also look pretty great on a t-shirt. 

Better still, the logo is open-source—anyone can use it, and they encourage folks to put the stickers on their menus or in the front of their restaurant. That way, they can educate consumers and challenge their assumptions. You can even request some directly from the campaign. “I've never done a license in a work that's open-source," he says. "To me, it's truly making work for the community—everybody can use this.”  

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Editorial photograph

You’re also going to see it grace food packaging as early as this February, as one of the partners in Know MSG is Asian pantry starter Omsom. "We grew up on MSG and are so stoked to help change the xenophobic narrative surrounding the ingredient," says Kim Pham, co-founder of Omsom, in a press release signaling the release of the campaign. "This dish starter will celebrate MSG and hopefully become a must-have in pantries across the nation, sitting right between the tomato sauce and olive oil.

If 2020 proved anything, it’s that we’re living amid a reckoning, one in which so many of the symbols and visual identities of brands are rightfully getting questioned, challenging the perception not only about the heritage of these things but the ongoing persistence of a kind of xenophobia and racism that has long been socially accepted and deeply rooted. Sure, a “No MSG” symbol might seem relatively innocuous, the type of health and dietary warning we’re all accustomed to. But it’s an inaccurate emblem that signals nothing more than a myth and a falsehood, and a culturally harmful one at that.