How much do you know about Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)?
If you’re like most consumers, what you know
about MSG is that it is somehow really dangerous for you. But, did you know
that glutamic acid, the base for MSG, is actually naturally present in many
foods? And that people have tried to describe what glutamic acid tastes like
all the way back to Aristotle?
The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in the
Brookfield Place, with a beautiful facility on the 3rd floor of the
World Trade Center plaza, tackled this topic. The presenters of 'MSG: Friend or
Foe?' culinary conference, Jonathan Soma and Sarah Lohman (whose recently
published book '8 Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine' is currently on
fire in food and sensory literary circles) gave a lively and entertaining
history of MSG, and its underlying taste 'umami'.
Among the fun facts discussed were some very
interesting take-aways, such as
- The good: an original comic book telling the story of MSG published
by Ajinomoto, Inc., the first MSG manufacturing company
- And the bad: the original letter to the editor of the New
England Journal of Medicine that started the fear of 'The Chinese Restaurant
- And the ugly: the biased preliminary research that was
later disproved, but led to a fear of MSG that has lasted over generations of
Other interesting tidbits
the co-presenters inspired their audience with: insipid is NOT a flavor; a grapefruit
can NEVER be salty; and last, but not least, anchovy pizza (with parmesan, not
mozzarella) is a homemade version of Doritos. Sound confusing? Just ask –
they’d be happy to explain.
Mrs. Lohman gave a history lesson about the
identification of the basic taste associated with glutamic acid, and the
invention of the manufacturing of MSG by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. Mr.
Ikeda’s primary goal was to make healthy dishes taste better – so Japanese
people could eat more and get bigger, like the people he met and thought of as 'giants' while studying in Europe. In the early 1900’s, he was able to isolate
the compound from the seaweed kelp used to make dashi, a commonly eaten broth
in Japan. Mr. Ikeda developed a process of fermenting the kelp in large vats to
produce a refined product, which became MSG. And, in the spirit of bringing
this new seasoning to the consumer, he started the Ajinomoto company to market
Ajinomoto has been quite
creative over the years in promoting their “revolutionary” ingredient, even
using the lure of the cosmetic container to attract housewives, designing
containers that looked like perfume bottles. In Japan, and later in China, MSG
became a new “buddy” for the pepper shaker – like the salt shaker, it was meant
to be used on everything, and every day.
Like many of the foods that we eat every day, MSG was
introduced to the American diet through immigrants.
The presenters emphasized that glutamic acid is naturally
present in every protein, including the proteins already present in your body. That’s
right – you are partially made up of the base for MSG. It’s also naturally
present in many foods you are probably already eating, such as tomatoes, asparagus,
and parmesan cheese.
the presenters left the audience with these tweet-worthy quotes (at least for
- 'Democritus believed isosceles triangles were salty and
scalene triangles were bitter.'
- 'In the words of food writer @jsteingarten: If MSG makes
you sick, why doesn't all of China have a headache?'
- 'MSG gets a bad rap… because it goes into a lot of
really bad food. MSG itself is harmless—its intended use was to enhance healthy
- 'Anchovy pizza with parmesan cheese is a natural Dorito'
- 'And, of course, grapefruit can never be salty' (thank you Democritus).
Kezia da Cruz is a Sensory Panel Assistant at MMR USA.