Maggi is back as India’s number one instant noodles brand after a trying year during which it was charged with selling noodles containing the controversial food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) and excessive amounts of lead. For over five months — June 5 to November 9, 2015 — Maggi Noodles were not sold in India. But it was not the first time MSG made things hot for Maggi.
Exactly 25 years before, in 1990, MSG leapt out of nowhere into the Indian news space as the newest dietary bad word. Indians had been eating Chinese street food loaded with the flavour enhancer for years without knowing it had such an industrial-sounding name. Even the cooks who sprinkled it liberally over sizzling woks called it “Chinese salt” although the monopoly brand Ajinomoto was Japanese.
Here’s an excellent article about Ajinomoto/MSG in The Guardian.
MSG was a known allergen. Many people were hypersensitive to it, but in India the rumour spread that it caused hyperactivity in children. From there, it was a short hop to the notion that eating Maggi Noodles made kids mischievous. Before long, some people were clamouring for a ban on showing children in Maggi commercials.
On September 3, 1990, Suresh Pachouri, a Member of Parliament, asked, “Whether government have banned appearance of kids in Maggi Noodles ads, to prevent their encouragement to consume monosodium glutamate which has been involved in hyperactivity amongst children?” and “Whether government propose to ban import, manufacture and use of monosodium glutamate as has been done in several other countries?”
Government of India also seemed worried about the rumours. While it said there was no proposal to ban the “import, manufacture and use of MSG” in India — not that MSG was made in the country anyway — it told the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to examine advertisements of foods that contained MSG “to ensure that pictures of children are not used for promoting the food products”.
But Maggi denied it added MSG to its noodles — it stuck to this position during the 2015 row also. When the question came up again in Parliament two years later, on March 18, 1992 — “Whether government are aware that Nestle have been adding MSG to noodles and are adding the same to soups, both of which are popular dishes with children” — the government replied: “M/s Nestle India Limited is not adding MSG to noodles. However, they are using MSG in soups marketed under the brand name Maggi within the prescribed limit under label declaration.”
By then, Government of India had decided what was wrong with MSG: “Monosodium glutamate in food products can (cause) increase in appetite as a result of salient sensory stimuli.” Perhaps it was the agent behind urban India’s expanding beltline.
The government still ruled out banning MSG — “As monosodium glutamate has been cleared as a safe food additive by FAO/WHO, there is no plan to stop its import at present” — but proposed that foods with added MSG should bear labels declaring them unfit for “infants below the age of 12 months”.
By 1995, MSG was not blamed for hyperactivity in children or increased appetite but a vague condition called “distress syndrome”. Yet the country’s appetite for it had increased so much that the government started maintaining detailed records of its import.
Limits on the use of MSG were finally set under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955: “Monosodium glutamate may be added to a food article provided the total glutamate content of the ready-to-serve food does not exceed 1%. It shall not be added to any food for use by the infant below 12 months.”
After looking hard across this country of (then) 955 million people, the government found only one case of “excess use of MSG in fried chicken”. With such law-abiding chefs everywhere, Indians certainly had no cause to worry about the top bugbear food additive of the day.