Ajinomoto: Mother’s Little Helper and a Dominant Global Tastemaker

 

Ajinomoto Ad_Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir
Ad from the book Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir 

 

It’s 1964 and Ajinomoto is at the top of the world.

Housewives in the growing post-war economies were benefiting from advances in food sciences. In America, it was easy to bake a Betty Crocker cake, or create a Jell-O dessert, or slap together a meal with a Swanson’s TV dinner.

For those who actually had to cook, particularly in Asia, mother’s little helper came in a little glass bottle with white crystals. This chemical substance, when added to food, instantly transformed bland vegetables, soups of meats into something savory and tasty. Created in 1908 by a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who extracted an element of sea kelp, Ajinomoto (or “the essence of taste”) became a global phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century.

It started with post-Meiji Era housewives of the upper classes, who believed that to be Western and cultured, they had to cook meals themselves. When they learned how easy it was to enhance the flavor of their prepared meals by adding Ajinomoto, sales took off.

Because this was the era of Imperialism, and Japan had colonies in East Asia, Ajinomoto made its ways to the kitchens of Taiwan and China. Restaurants in Taiwan quickly became addicted to the use of Ajinomoto, and this particular flavor and brand became associated with quality. According to this fascinating history of Ajinomoto called A Short History of MSG – Good Science, Bad Science and Taste Cultures, by Jordan Sand, display of the container that Ajinomoto was shipped in became proof of the quality of that establishment.

Some Taiwanese restaurants and noodle shops helped market the product unsolicited. If the tabletop glass shaker symbolized Ajinomoto’s mature position in the metropolitan Japanese food system, in Taiwan it was the square, gold colored, one-kilogram can, which was first imported in 1928. Food vendors and noodle shops displayed these cans toshow customers they used Ajinomoto. Presumably they did so in part to announce they were not using an imitationbrand, several of which had appeared in the 1920s. The large gold cans had particular significance for individual consumers, too, since Taiwanese merchants began opening them in the shops and selling small quantities by weight.

Ajinomoto ad_Jordan Sand
Ajinomoto advertised in a Chinese magazine from the 1920s. From Ajinomoto kabushiki gaisha shashi [Company History of Ajinomoto Incorporated] (Ajinomoto kabushiki gaisha, 1971), volume 1.
To succeed in China, Ajinomoto was marketed as the Buddha’s hand, again, according to Sand, and was particularly useful in making vegetarian food in China more palatable. And once something in China becomes popular or commonplace, it was only a matter of time before it made its way further abroad. The Chinese diaspora is one of the biggest, and when Chinese immigrants poured into America to help build the railroads, Chinese food became a staple of not only the migrants, but also the locals.

Fast forward to the 1960s, and this miracle food enhancer was at its peak, and beginning its descent. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring educated the world on the unintended but dangerous consequences of pesticides in our ecosystem and our food supply, and more generally on man’s impact on nature. Eventually, people began to suspect that Ajinomoto, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate (MSG), was making people nervous because of its linkage to headaches, sweating, rapid heartbeats, sweating and even chest pain and nausea. In America, this particular ailment was informally called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, thanks to migrant cooks inordinate dependence on Ajinomoto.

Eventually, negative reactions to Ajinomoto in the United States spread to Japan. When the 1970s rolled around, Ajinomoto’s sales fell. Ajinomoto diversified and recovered, and today, Ajinomoto is certainly a giant among food manufacturers in Japan. But at the early parts of its existence, Ajinomoto was a company, by virtue of a single product, that had a significant global impact.

And in 1964, during the Tokyo Olympics, Ajinomoto was held up as one of Japan’s great success stories.