Well, I am decidedly NOT afraid of it anymore.
Monosodium Glutamate, aka MSG, has a terrible reputation in the West, which is really unfortunate as that reputation is entirely undeserved. Since I now live in China where MSG is used all the time, I decided that I should find out more about it.
Forgive me if I now have to give you a little bit of a history lesson – but I think you will find it interesting.
Way back in 1908 a certain Professor Kikunae Ikeda realised that konbu seaweed (much used in Japanese cuisine ) contained high quantities of a naturally ocurring amino acid called glutamate. Foodstuffs which contained this amino acid were much tastier than other foods. This quality he refered to as ‘umami’ – deliciousness. It is present in asparagus, mushrooms, tomatos, parmesan cheese, smoked fish, the browned exterior of roasted meats and several other foods but in much smaller quantities than in konbu and various fish broths. Professor Ikeda set about trying to manufacture glutamate, and he eventually patented a crystalline form of glutamate which was stabilized with salt – MSG was born. Realising its potential for enhancing food, he set up a company to manufacture it commercially and called it Ajinomoto (which means ‘essence of taste’). The company is still the largest world producer of MSG – more than a million tons annually -and exports it globally.
Knowledge of MSG must have spread like wild-fire all over the Far East as it was taken up by the Chinese, Indonesians, Malays, Koreans, Vietnamese and quickly became a kitchen staple along with salt and pepper, used in both domestic and restaurant cooking.
Through eastern ethnic restaurants MSG crept into the west. Then, in 1968, a Chinese American, Dr Robert Kwok wrote a single letter to The New England Journal of Medicine saying that eating Chinese food made his neck go numb and gave him headaches, and that he attributed this (with no scientific evidence) to the use of MSG in the food. He refered to his symptoms as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. As a result of that one letter, MSG has been damned in the west – quite unjustifiably. People started claiming that they were ‘allergic’ to MSG, but there is no solid evidence to back such claims (so many people claim to have food allergies to cover the fact that they don’t like something or other) true allergy to MSG is incredibly rare. To cover themselves, and to make their products seem more ‘natural’, some western food manufacturers started printing ‘No added MSG’ on packaging, thus re-inforcing the mistaken idea that MSG is a bad thing – the same is true of some restaurants, particularly oriental restaurants in the west who realised that MSG had a bad image, and so, to gain an advantage over their local competition would say that they cooked without MSG – though without the food being subject to chemical analysis a diner would almost certainly never know whether it was used or not.
I could fill this entire blog post with a list of the umpteen studies that have been done which prove that MSG does NOT produce such symptoms, that MSG is perfectly safe to consume etc, but I will spare you all that. If you want to know more about the research go to the report published by the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) 2003 which gives a good short overview of all the scientific investigations by various bodies such as the USFDA, WHO, EU SCF, etc, which have been done in the past 50 years. What I found interesting is that in 2000 a team of scientists at the University of Miami discovered that receptors on the human tongue, the purpose of which had never been determined, were glutamate receptors – human beings need to recognise glutamate as it usually indicates the presence of protein which is one of our essential dietary needs, amongst other things glutamate is also used as a neurotransmitter in the brain.
Now it is time for me to ‘fess up (as the Americans would say) – for the past two years I have been experimenting with the use of MSG when cooking for my family and friends! It is hardly a scientific study, but I have noticed that a dish containing a small amount of MSG always gets more compliments on its taste than one without it – and better still, because MSG ‘boosts’ the flavour I can cut down/out salt and fat in a dish without diminishing flavour – and that is better for health reasons. MSG has one other sterling quality, it is self-limiting. That is to say that when you have eaten enough umami-rich food your appetite diminishes noticably and you stop eating.
There are several brands of MSG; the one I use (purely because I like the decorative tin!) is Ve Tsin, and like several other brands it calls itself a ‘Gourmet Powder’ but in point of fact it is pure MSG. ‘Mushroom Powder’ which is widely available (and much used in Korean and Vietnamese cooking) is also MSG.
So if you have been ‘anti’ MSG because you have heard some of the myths and prejudice about it, please think again, and to coin a phrase:
Feel the fear and eat it anyway.