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Africa Food Culture

African Cooking: What’s With the Maggi Cubes?

May 15, 2020

Maggi stock cubes—rich with sodium, MSG, and hydrogenated fats—are ubiquitous in West African cooking. But what are they replacing?

Groundnut soup in Sierra Leone
Groundnut soup, Sierra Leone

At a community-based eco-lodge on Sierra Leone’s Freetown Peninsula in the spring of 2012, Scott and I were invited to tag along for the weekly run to the local market. On the shopping list was everything from groundnuts (peanuts) and pineapple to bread and eggs, and Maggi. I didn’t think anything of the flavoring agent, figuring the stock cubes were thrown into a few of the local stews as a base. But a large pack was purchased for the week, and at the market, it was clearly a popular item. We soon realized that every dish we ate at this place incorporated shrimp-flavored Maggi cubes, from the standard potato-leaf stew to the delicious tomato-based “special sauce” that accompanied the fresh grilled lobster.

It didn’t end there. It quickly became evident that most restaurants we visited in Sierra Leone used Maggi (or its Chinese cousin, Dag Bah, made by Qiangwang Group) in their food. On remote Tiwai Island, where the sole cook often had to obtain ingredients from villages off-island, the seasoning was present in every dish. Construction workers who set up a makeshift lunch camp deep in the hills near Kenema put Maggi in the plasa they cooked. In Senegal, too, women selling some favorite dishes outside markets in Dakar cited Maggi as an ingredient. So what’s with all the Maggi cubes in West African cuisine? It seemed that, like groundnuts, black-eyed beans, okra, palm oil, rice, millet, and sorghum, they were just another key component of the cuisine.

African cooking, chopping onions with Maggi stock packets nearby
Making lunch in Sierra Leone

What’s the Problem with Maggi?

No one will tell you Maggi cubes are good for your health. Good for a dish’s flavor, absolutely, but not your blood pressure (or cholesterol, for that matter). This site lists each ingredient in a cube of West African Maggi, but the salt and trans fats are the biggest concerns. Maggi cubes are high in not only sodium—similar products average about 1,000mg per cube or half cube—but also usually contain hydrogenated oils and lots of monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Excessive sodium is linked to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease. Hydrogenated oils (think margarine) are once-healthy oils processed into poisonous trans fatty acids, which have been shown to increase LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, and decrease HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. And while MSG is now “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA in the U.S. and food writers and chefs love to wax poetic about it, it is probably not something you want to be eating lots of in processed form multiple times a day, every day.

(Nestlé, which acquired the Swiss-owned Maggi in 1947, states on its website that there’s “no consistent clinical evidence to support a food intolerance to MSG” and it’s “safe for general consumption at the current levels.”) 

Maggi Cubes vs. Tradition

When I realized I was eating this stuff at every meal in West Africa, I immediately heard those bad-for-your-health bells going off, but then I got curious: How were these dishes prepared here before Maggi came along?

I did not find my answer in Africa. But back in New York, I noticed in a Sierra Leonean cookbook purchased in Freetown—What’s Cooking Today, by Muriel Emekunle Davies—that while Maggi cubes are often listed as ingredients, they’re always an alternative to something called ogeri, which a Freetown chef informed me, via email, is fermented benni (sesame) seeds. Further research identified another traditional seasoning called sounbareh, the seeds of the néré tree, or African locust bean tree, which goes by the name soumbala in other West African countries.

Apparently, sounbareh acts as a thickener, flavoring agent, and meat substitute, and has a much higher nutritional value than stock cubes. According to a report from Slow Food and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, one reason it’s fallen out of favor is deforestation. Another is that in the marketplace, sounbareh now competes with Maggi.

Several factors negatively affect the availability and consumption of the locust beans: indiscriminate harvesting and burning of the trees, increasing demand for the product from all ethnic groups and pressure from local fauna on the plant—monkeys and squirrels compete with the human population to eat the fruit, especially before they dry out…It is an essential product to local Sierra Leonean gastronomy, and is under pressure from various sources. Some of this pressure is contradictory as on the one hand the demand for the product is high among rural populations, but the availability of the plant is in decline, while on the other the urban or semi-urban populations tend to replace it with Maggi cubes. The processing of the seasoning is part of the Mandingo culture and its spread among other ethnic groups is a factor in social cohesion. The product, particularly when compared with the ubiquitous industrial stock cubes, has a significant nutritional content.

It’s not hard to guess why a consumer might choose Maggi over sounbareh for that tasty umami oomph: Preparing the seasoning is a process that includes harvesting, cleaning, fermenting, boiling, and drying the seeds over a course of several days, and then roasting and pounding them for use in cooking. That’s plenty more effort and time required than simply unwrapping a Maggi cube and dropping it into a stock pot.

It’s not just about convenience, though. In many parts of West Africa (and beyond), Maggi has evolved to be a beloved part of the cuisine, triggering nostalgia among the diaspora. It is its own class of “local food,” something many dishes now wouldn’t be the same without.

Nestlé’s Maggi and its assorted knockoffs, it seems, have found a way to replace old food traditions with new ones. But at what nutritional expense? And will those original gastronomic traditions go extinct, or find a way to live on?  

African woman cooking in front of a Maggi cube sign
A restaurant in Popenguine, Senegal

Possible Maggi Substitutes

When Scott and I questioned the volunteer manager of the Sierra Leone eco-resort about the inclusion of these sodium bombs in every meal, he was a little alarmed and asked to brainstorm substitutes for their own meals. We’re not nutritionists or chefs, but one thought was to use homemade stock, perhaps with all those lobster shells they were composting after meals. However, with limited solar power and a tiny refrigerator, the lodge wasn’t prepared for such an undertaking.

In Freetown, we met one Sierra Leonean chef, at a wonderful restaurant called Balmaya, who told us she preferred to use regular old salt and pepper instead of Maggi, which she suspected to be unhealthy. (We personally found her food, like this cassava-leaf plasa, delicious even without it.) MSG the flavor enhancer was born of dried kombu seaweed in Japan—and we’ve heard of chefs in Chinese cooking who use sea kelp in lieu of the stuff—so certainly that could work too.  

Of course, once I read about ogeri and sounbareh, those became the clear answers. But are they still used at all? The Freetown chef says yes, especially where Maggi is too expensive for people to afford it (though she notes that production of ogeri has declined dramatically in Sierra Leone, and sounbareh has likewise grown pricey). Ibrahim Fatorma, the Sierra Leonean manager of the eco-lodge we visited, informed me that ogeri is still used in many traditional recipes, but, echoing the Slow Food report, mostly upcountry. In an email he also alluded to another delicious Maggi substitute made from lati fish, a type of native herring, along with a few other ingredients, and added that the lodge (now shuttered) had dramatically cut back on its Maggi use. 

Maggi’s a funny thing. Everyone knows it, and it does indeed make everything taste better. Many cultures, well beyond West Africa, have grown to rely on it, this little flavor explosion in a cube. I don’t question the nostalgia factor, or the convenience of any stock cube, but Maggi is also indisputably not good for one’s health, from a sodium standpoint alone. Wouldn’t it be in Nestlé’s best interest to rework the Maggi formula so it does less potential health damage to the populations consuming it not just once in a while but nearly every day?

Shortly after our visit to West Africa, the company said it would start fortifying its bouillon cubes with iron to address deficiencies in the African market. Which makes us wonder: Will the added iron be listed before or after the hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list?

Eds.’ note: In 2017, Nestlé announced plans to reduce the sodium content of Maggi cubes by 10 percent, and to swap out unrecognizable ingredients with real food.

This post was last updated on May 15, 2020.

  • Reply
    Nick
    August 31, 2020 at 1:47 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I’m really intrigued by the ubiquity of the Maggi cube across the cuisines of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and beyond. For such a small, foil-wrapped consumer good, there is so much to unpack from a sociological perspective.

    • Reply
      Laura Siciliano-Rosen
      September 1, 2020 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for reading, Nick–it IS very intriguing and more than a little complicated! I wrote this years ago and wonder if anything has shifted, but as far as I know, Maggi still features prominently in these cuisines.

  • Reply
    Janai
    October 26, 2020 at 5:43 am

    Hello,
    I’m from Africa, this truly is a cause for concern. Maggi should be banned.

    One question, is Maggie capable of causing cancer?

    • Reply
      Laura Siciliano-Rosen
      October 28, 2020 at 11:25 am

      I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, so I cannot say! My best guess is Maggi is the kind of thing best in moderation. It would be sad if it were banned, because now it’s an essential part of so much West African cuisine. I only wish Maggi could be made healthier somehow by Nestle!

  • Reply
    Francis Adjepong
    December 5, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Reading your blog has energized me to do further research on this Maggi cube product, as my wife and daughter happen to use it in most of their cooking.

    Here’s a posting that I just uncovered:

    https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&channel=iphone_bm&source=hp&ei=suDLX4LYDLXc9AOY8KSYBg&q=maggi+side+effects&oq=maggi+side+&gs_lcp=ChFtb2JpbGUtZ3dzLXdpei1ocBABGAAyBQgAEMkDMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgYIABAWEB4yBggAEBYQHjIGCAAQFhAeMgYIABAWEB46AggpOggIABDqAhCPAToLCC4QsQMQgwEQkwI6BQgAELEDOggILhCxAxCDAToICAAQsQMQgwE6AgguOg4ILhCxAxCDARDJAxCTAjoFCC4QsQM6CwguELEDEMkDEJMCOgcILhCxAxAKOgcIABCxAxAKOggIABAWEAoQHlCCQ1jniwFg2eABaAFwAHgAgAFkiAHSB5IBBDEwLjGYAQCgAQGwAQ8&sclient=mobile-gws-wiz-hp

    And it appears the government of India had at some point in the past 5 years banned the product. Hmmmm.

    • Reply
      Laura Siciliano-Rosen
      December 6, 2020 at 9:42 pm

      MSG is definitely not the worst thing in Maggi. I’m more concerned about the high sodium and trans fats. I believe India banned it for a while because lead was detected in some of the products!

  • Reply
    Seun Olatuyi
    December 13, 2020 at 2:53 pm

    Every seasoning will contain most of what you listed as the ingredients above. Everything is to be done with moderation. The traditional seasonings you mentioned are well known in Africa, especially in Nigeria but I can guarantee you that if you happen to be where ogeri/ogiri and soumbala/iru/locust beans is unwrapped you won’t eat that food, except you’ve been used to the smell.
    Like I earlier said, everything should be in moderation.

  • Reply
    Seun Olatuyi
    December 13, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    Maggi is prominent buy not the only seasoning. Check out Knorr, Terra Cubes, Doyin Cubes etc. A lot of them in the market especially in Nigeria. Trans fat is in Other products like butter, milk, margarine etc so it’s not perculiar to Maggi alone.
    Eating an apple a day is good but eating 10/15 apples a day may make one sick. I stand to be corrected.
    Moderation is the key word.

  • Reply
    jD
    December 31, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    Very good post. Thanks for thaking the time

  • Reply
    Dike
    January 5, 2021 at 10:27 am

    I strongly believe that excessI’ve consumption of this product called MAGGI is not advisable and should be discouraged.
    But where practicable use items like fish, prawns, periwinkle stockfish to season foodo.

  • Reply
    Ekene
    January 30, 2021 at 12:45 pm

    Nice article. Ogeri, is also used in Nigeria, and is still actively used widely in the South East of Nigeria. It is however called Ogiri or Ogili. There is another variant of it called Okpei and Ugba. Ogili Okpei and Ogili Ugba. They smell so badly, but not after being used to cook. It was the perfect substitute for seasoning cubes before Maggi became popular.

    There is also a fish powder that tastes so good that people use it to replace seasoning cube. My mum has used it once.

    Nice article. I believe that one day, people will forget Ogili, as you pointed out that Ogeri is already being forgotten in Sierra Leone. Right now, Ogili is still being used in Nigeria. I hope you can document all you need to about it, before it goes into extinction.

    • Reply
      Laura Siciliano-Rosen
      January 31, 2021 at 11:11 am

      Thanks, Ekene. That’s good to know re: ogili in Nigeria. Maybe I can find a local writer there to document it further!

      • Reply
        Njoku Rita
        August 13, 2021 at 8:57 am

        Hi, I just came across your post and I’m a Nigerian Writer. I can document something on ignition here in Nigeria.
        You can reach me on [email protected]

  • Reply
    KF
    April 24, 2021 at 9:48 am

    Ivory Coast dweller here. Yeah, Nestle is crooked. And they never kept their word about changing ingredients, but that doesn’t surprise me. They’re in for the money.

  • Reply
    NBed
    May 19, 2021 at 8:03 pm

    Maggie may not be used in America but there is MSG in almost every aspect of American cuisine. Hydrogenated fat as well as everything u mentioned. The only way to eat right is produce your own food. From farm to table. Everything is should be in moderation.

    • Reply
      Laura Siciliano-Rosen
      May 19, 2021 at 8:16 pm

      Totally. And MSG isn’t really the bad guy, it’s the sodium and bad fats at the end of the day. I’m all for moderation too–it’s the everyday use that is worrying!

  • Reply
    agbai johnson agbai
    July 26, 2021 at 5:33 am

    Wow this is a good article indeed, honestly the local seasonings smells awful but tastes good at last I believe the smell is one of the turn offs that makes the switch from organic to processed foods which in turn is harmful, as of moderation, what quantity is moderate? Will the companies tell us? NO. Will they work on it? NEVER. Our healthy lives and living depends on us, if yours is optional mine is not.
    If a good thing can’t yield money the world will paint it bad, But! if a Bad thing brings the cash the world makes it look good. The worst part is the readiness to silence anyone kicking against it.

  • Reply
    Jason Peterson
    October 12, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    I’m surprised by the variety of stock cubes this company has across the world. I thought they were global products. My guilty pleasure is a beef flavor called Kostilja here. I love to drink it with tomato paste or cook grain in it. Tomatos add even more glutamate.

    The company can bulk up their product with salt, which doesn’t cost anything. But you’d add some salt to the dish one way or another. Sodium is a modern boogeyman. The declared fat is palm oil. I wonder why they don’t use straight tallow which is also cheap.

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