MSG: The Fact and the Fiction
You have probably heard of MSG as a food additive, and maybe even heard negative things around it. But, have you stopped to wonder what is MSG? Or, is MSG a salt? We answer all your questions here.
By the chemical definition, monosodium glutamate is a salt. However, unlike other salts used to flavour food, it is not associated with negative health outcomes if you eat too much. Although it won’t taste very nice. It’s produced by the addition of a single sodium atom to the alpha-amino acid, glutamic acid.
If you look through many superb Japanese cookbooks, you will see recipes calling for a pinch of MSG. This seems counterintuitive when you think of the beautiful simplicity of Japanese cuisine, the obsession with nature and tradition. You might have heard of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” – feeling sick and headachey after enjoying a meal from your local Chinese restaurant. You’ve no doubt seen adverts and read articles about “evil” chemical additives in modern foods. So how did one of the purest cuisines on the planet create such an alleged monster?
Where does MSG come from?
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was first isolated in 1908 by Japanese chemist Ikeda Kikunae. But this is not where the story begins.
MSG was an essential component of Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years before this. It took the form of fermented kelp, a kind of edible seaweed. It is an essential component of the Japanese broth, dashi, and adds what has come to be called the “fifth taste”, umami. Umami literally means “deliciousness” in Japanese. However, it has come to represent that savoury flavour present in things like mushrooms, parmesan and pasta.
What does MSG taste like?
If you taste a pinch of MSG crystals it’s very difficult to describe the flavour. The first time I tasted it, I didn’t quite know what to expect. It tastes nice but doesn’t really have a distinct flavour – or certainly not one I could name. Eating MSG is not like tasting salt, which is very easy to identify. When you start to associate the flavour with truffle or pasta or other savoury things it becomes a bit clearer. But it is quite an odd experience. In short, it has a slightly salty, savoury delicious flavour.
The Plate Unknown
Hey there! We are Katie & Matt, the duo who love food - and learning about it even more!
We have worked in the food industry for 30 years combined and are set to travel the world to continue learning about the food of the world.
How MSG travelled the world
When MSG was isolated, Japan was still going through a rapid modern transformation. At the time, all things modern were being embraced. MSG was marketed at housewives as an essential ingredient to a modern kitchen. Although it was shunned by chefs who created the flavour through the use of kelp, it did take off in the home. Eventually, some of the chefs had to relent when their customer’s palates became accustomed to the flavour.
Taiwan and China
MSG took off in Taiwan and then China in a big way. People universally embraced it much more quickly than in Japan. It was seen as an easy way to make stock and to add flavour to dishes.
Taiwan, in particular, has a cuisine based on broths and soups which involve many ingredients that take a long time to make. So anything that could speed up the process was embraced.
This is one of the very few ingredients to migrate from Japan to China, not the other way around. The Chinese initially shunned the Japanese product. They saw it as a symbol of Imperial Japan’s aggressive overtures towards China but they did recognise its value. They quickly developed their own version from fermented wheat which spread rapidly across the country. The fact that the product was vegetarian helped immensely as much of the population periodically didn’t eat meat or were entirely vegetarian.
MSG was first introduced to the US as an additive in industrial food products like Campbell’s soup. They recognised the ability of MSG to make bland food taste better. In the 1930s they were the biggest customer of the Japanese MSG producers, Ajinomoto. American’s never had containers of the seasoning in their kitchens. However, they were increasingly consuming it in the pre-packaged foods that were so popular at the time. When trust in the food manufacturing industry collapsed in the 1960s anything that was seen as “unnatural” or “unfamiliar” was demonised. This, of course, included MSG. A couple of additives were banned by the FDA after studies revealed they were carcinogenic. This made the population very wary of anything they didn’t instantly recognise.
Just after the FDA confirmed that MSG is perfectly safe for human consumption, a letter arrived at “The New England Journal of Medicine”. The letter, penned by a Chinese American doctor, described a recurring syndrome of headaches, numbness and palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants in the US. Despite single and double-blind studies being unable to replicate this experience, “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was born. It ultimately became a well-known phenomenon across the US and the rest of the West. Though it did take Campbell’s soup 47 years to remove MSG from it’s condensed soups.
Should I be worried about MSG?
MSG has been unfairly demonised and completely misunderstood in the last 50 years. Now, I’m not saying you should start chucking it in everything you make, but when you see MSG in a recipe don’t worry about it. It is just like seeing salt in a recipe.
Don’t ask Chinese restaurants if they use MSG – unless you are allergic of course. Asking will definitely upset the chef. At best, the question is ill-informed. And, at worst, it’s cultural racism. On the off chance you don’t feel great after eating a lot of Chinese food, it could be anything at all. But it definitely isn’t “Chinese restaurant syndrome”.
Trip planning Scotland by train made easy with this 10 Day Scotland Itinerary covering all the top sites and places to eat.
Discover where to stay in Edinburgh city centre’s top districts including the Old Town, New Town and Stockbridge.
Explore the Must-Try Food in São Paulo. The São Paulo food scene is exciting, filled with top Brazilian cuisine for you to try.
The Plate Unknown LLP is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The Plate Unknown is an educational food blog. Here we share information about world food culture, the origin of dishes from around the world, and tips for taking a food-focused trip.