MSG in Japan – What foods contain it? How do I know?

What foods contain MSG in Japan? MSG (Monosodium glutamate) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid found in foods containing protein such as meat, vegetables, milk, etc. Free glutamate is what hits the umami receptors on our tongue that sense foods that are savory. The more free glutamate in the food, the more savory it tastes. That is why ripe or mature foods that like cheese, fruits, soy sauce, seaweed, miso, dashi (Japanese broth made from fish and seaweed) or other forms of broth have such full flavors, even without the use of MSG.

MSG is made through a fermentation process much like how we make vinegar, yogurt, or beer, but usually made with carbohydrates like corn, sugar cane and beets . After the fermentation process, it is then purified and crystallized to become the white, salt-like minerals we see sold in Japanese stores, more commonly labeled as  “Aji-no-moto” (味の素).

Japan appears to be less concerned with the use of MSG in their foods in comparison with number of western nations, but awareness of additives being used and eating more whole foods is increasing.
If you are one to carefully choose what you eat and would like to avoid consuming chemical seasonings like MSG in Japan, have a look at the nutrition label on the back of your food of choice.  If you find the following words together  調味料(アミノ酸)or(アミノ酸等), this indicates that MSG or other artificial food additives are being used. It is important to note that 調味料 by itself does not mean there is MSG. It just means that product contains seasonings, like herbs and spices.

The popularity of Ajinomoto in Japan itself has decreased among family households, but new items claiming to have a certain flavor enhancer using a particular ingredient will most likely have MSG plus the claimed item.

Common foods throughout Japan that sometimes uses additives, including MSG, would be the following:

  • Convenience store bentos and side dishes
  • Seasonings and condiments (dashi-no-moto, consomme powder, noodle broth, soy sauce, etc.)
  • Instant foods (ramen noodles, miso soups, curry, etc.)
  • Sausages and other fish-paste foods
  • Snacks both sweet and salty
  • Canned foods
  • Retort foods or ready-made foods
  • Frozen foods

There are other foods out there using MSG or artificial ingredients, but with a quick search of the label, you can easily determine if one or another product is right for you.

You can read more about what MSG is and its effects on health in our previous article here.