MSG - savory sensation or lurking menace?


March 07, 2017

by Kezia da Cruz

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 Syndrome.'
  • And the ugly: the biased preliminary research that was later disproved, but led to a fear of MSG that has lasted over generations of American consumers

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 it. 

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.

And the presenters left the audience with these tweet-worthy quotes (at least for Sensory scientists!):

  • '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 food'
  • '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.

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