If you ate at any sort of Asian restaurant, especially Chinese eateries, during the 1970s-1990s, you did so at your own peril. At least that’s what all the monosodium glutamate (MSG) alarmists warned every chance that they got. (That it smacked of a down-low racism wasn’t lost on anyone paying attention.) According to the anti-MSG crowd, the ingredient commonly used in Asian cooking (not just Chinese and Japanese) could potentially make unwitting diners ill. The claims were so rampant that it became ingrained in many minds as scientific truth. But of course, when it comes to commonly-held but not-well-tested scientific truths, the claims turned out to be pseudo-scientific rubbish for the most part. Since then, the culinary community has disputed the misinformation whenever possible.
But words only go so far. The biggest weapon against MSG misinformation? MSG itself because it tastes fantastic.
Ingredient: Monosodium Glutamate
Descended from: Glutamic Acid.
Discovery date: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was discovered by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Ikeda was interested in the unique taste sensation known as umami, which is often described as a savory or meaty flavor. He noticed that this taste was particularly prominent in a traditional Japanese soup called dashi, which is made from kombu seaweed.
Ikeda set out to identify the specific compound responsible for the umami taste. Through a series of experiments, he isolated glutamic acid, an amino acid, as the key component. Glutamic acid occurs naturally in many foods, including meats, vegetables, and fermented products.
Ikeda then further refined his work and discovered that when glutamic acid was combined with sodium, it formed a stable and easily usable compound that could enhance the umami taste. This compound was monosodium glutamate, which he patented and named Ajinomoto, meaning “essence of taste” in Japanese. Ajinomoto is also the name of the Japanese company that Ikeda co-founded to produce MSG.
The discovery of MSG revolutionized the food industry by providing a way to enhance flavors and create a more satisfying taste experience. MSG quickly gained popularity as a food additive and flavor enhancer, and it is still widely used today in various cuisines around the world.
Properties: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has several notable properties, which contribute to its widespread use as a food additive and flavor enhancer. Here are some key properties of MSG:
- Flavor Enhancer – MSG is primarily known for its ability to enhance the umami taste, which is often described as a savory, meaty, or broth-like flavor. It can amplify and round out the flavors of various foods, making them more delicious and satisfying.
- Crystalline Powder – MSG is commonly found as a white crystalline powder. Its fine texture allows it to dissolve easily in liquids and be dispersed evenly throughout food preparations.
- Solubility – MSG is highly soluble in water, which means it can quickly dissolve in liquid-based foods, sauces, and broths. This property ensures that it can evenly distribute and enhance flavors throughout the dish.
- Heat Stability – MSG is relatively heat-stable, meaning it retains its flavor-enhancing properties even when exposed to high temperatures during cooking. This stability allows it to be used in a wide range of culinary applications, including frying, baking, and boiling.
- Synergistic Effect – MSG has a synergistic effect when combined with other flavors. It can enhance the perception of sweetness, saltiness, and other taste sensations, making food taste more balanced and appealing.
- Low Sodium Content – Despite containing the term “sodium” in its name, MSG is relatively low in sodium compared to table salt (sodium chloride). It is estimated that MSG contains about one-third the amount of sodium as an equivalent amount of table salt, making it a popular option for individuals who are watching their sodium intake.
Health benefits: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is primarily known for its flavor-enhancing properties and its ability to contribute to the umami taste in foods. While MSG itself does not provide significant nutritional or health benefits, it can enhance the palatability and enjoyment of meals. By enhancing flavors, it can make certain foods more appetizing and encourage consumption of nutrient-rich ingredients like vegetables and lean proteins.
Dishes of Note: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Thai cuisines… You name it.
History: MSG entered Chinese cuisine around the 1920s and ’30s, quickly becoming a staple in many dishes for its umami kick. Its use eventually spread to Chinese restaurants in Western countries.
In the 1960s, MSG became controversial due to a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok. Kwok reported symptoms of numbness, weakness, and palpitations after eating at American-Chinese restaurants, calling it “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS). His anecdotal account sparked substantial scientific and public interest.
Several studies were conducted to establish a link between MSG and CRS. However, these investigations showed inconsistent results, and many were criticized for lack of rigorous scientific method. Despite the inconclusive evidence, public perception turned against MSG, leading to its stigmatization.
Later reviews by authorities like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, concluded that MSG is generally safe for consumption. However, a small number of people may have short-term reactions to MSG, similar to food allergies or intolerances.
Despite this vindication, the legacy of CRS continues to impact the reputation of MSG, perpetuating food myths and stereotypes. As of my knowledge cutoff in 2021, efforts are ongoing to dispel these misconceptions and restore the reputation of MSG as a safe, flavor-enhancing ingredient.
WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.
IMAGE CREDIT: ALTEREDSNAPS.