Donna Berry 2019CHICAGO – During an interactive session at the Research Chefs Association’s RCA+ virtual conference on March 25, Christopher Koetke, corporate executive chef, and Tia Rains, vice president of customer engagement and strategic development, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Chicago, discussed strategies to debunk the myths about foods and food ingredients. They presented tactics to help overcome misinformation and how to reshape public opinion through communicating science as well as addressing emotional and taste factors.

“Education, education, education, it’s informing people about the facts, about the realities,” Mr. Koetke said.

He provided the example of Asian carp, an invasive species of fish in the Midwest waterways that outeats other fish, making it an ecological challenge to the Great Lakes. The words “invasive” and “carp” immediately create a negative perception of the fish. The reality, however, is Asian carp are not bottom-feeding fish. They are wild caught, sustainable and good tasting-fish, much like tilapia, Mr. Koetke said. That’s what consumers need to understand.

So how do you do change perceptions? You reframe the product. Rebrand the product. Get them to eat it. And get the truth to the influencers to amplify the message, he said.

That’s what happened with soy.

“When soy first came to the US, it was perceived as animal feed,” Mr. Koetke said. “Then there were rumors about its estrogen content.

“Whenever safety is involved, you have to address this head on. The industry had to look at the science on hormones.”

Then education entered the strategy. Education involved looking at other countries and how soy has been used as human food for a long time.

“The US perception of soy as animal feed was an anomaly,” Mr. Koetke said. “Then we had to lean on (food) science to Americanize soy, to make it palatable for the US palate. This involved enzymes, sweeteners and even flavors. Now soy is everywhere.”

Ms. Rains said eggs are the poster child for confusion about food and nutrition. It started in the 1960s when research linked dietary cholesterol intake with an increased risk of heart disease.

“Science led us down one path, while newer science revealed that the older science was not correct,” Ms. Rains said. “In the late 1990s, there was newer scientific evidence showing that the cholesterol you eat does not impact the cholesterol in blood.

“But it is always the case that when you have one or two pieces of research that start to make a food look bad on health, it takes a lot more research to finally convince people that the initial results were not valid. It took decades of redoing the same studies to convince the regulatory body to change (dietary cholesterol) recommendations.”

From the 1960s until 2015, when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee advised that dietary cholesterol is no longer a public health concern, egg consumption declined year after year. Once the message came out, egg intake started to rise as it continues to do today. It also further opened the door for researchers to explore the nutritive value of eggs. Today its choline content is recognized for cognitive and memory function.

“Now eggs are on these lists of superfoods, whereas 20 years ago, they were a heart attack in a shell,” Ms. Rains said. 

Tackling perceptions of MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a different story, Ms. Rains said. The industry is at a point where it is strategizing how to convince the public MSG is not unhealthy because the science has never showed it to be unhealthy.

Since glutamate’s identification as a source of umami, in 1908, and then commercialization in 1909 as a table-top flavor enhancer (when paired with sodium into an easy-to-dissolve salt), it was consumed without incidence until 1968. That year a physician wrote a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine about how he felt after eating at a Chinese restaurant in the United States. He attributed feelings of weakness, numbness, palpitations and headaches to the food.

“This would never have been published today in a medical journal,” Ms. Rains said. “The editors of that journal titled the article ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ This was not a piece of science.”

The author listed several ingredients that may have been the source of his feelings. The scientific community latched onto MSG and started studying it in laboratory mice and eventually humans.

“No negative study was ever shown in humans,” Ms. Rains said.

Regulatory bodies around the world have reviewed the literature and have all made the same conclusion.

“That is that there is nothing there,” she said. “That MSG is safe for use in food.”

In 2018, Ajinomoto decided to tackle the misinformation about MSG and the process continues today. The company has three strategies. First is to invest in more science. This includes how up to 60% of sodium in a recipe may be reduced by adding a small amount of MSG. This is accomplished by the MSG activating taste receptors and delivering umami taste. Second is an education program targeting consumers, health professionals and chefs.

“We’ve done this in a number of different ways,” Ms. Rains said. “Because unfortunately, as a scientist, I would love to believe that people would just take my word for it when I state facts. But as it turns out, sometimes facts don’t sit well with people. They need it to be packaged up in something that makes it more compelling.”

For Ajinomoto, this included publishing articles through influencers on platforms such BuzzFeed. It also included working with Merriam-Webster to redefine Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

The third strategy is experience. It’s making science accessible and understandable by tasting just what MSG does to food. It’s educating people that glutamate is one of 20 essential amino acids and is responsible for umami, one of the five basic tastes. And that MSG is pure umami.

“It’s getting it into someone’s mouth and then you see the lightbulb go on,” Mr. Koetke said. “They are like, ‘wow, something just happened to my food and that is very pleasurable.’”

The efforts are ongoing. Mr. Koetke cited research showing the perception of MSG has been changing with professional chefs, registered dietitians and food-forward consumers. Ajinomoto’s goal had been to change MSG’s perception from negative to neutral, and in fact, it is now viewed positively by a growing number of people.