It’s the umami, stupid. Why the truth about MSG is so easy to swallow
Umami — the meaty taste that the unfairly maligned MSG is designed to deliver — has seen a resurgence in the foodie community. Even famous chefs are using natural glutamates — which are not chemically different from the ones found in MSG — to enhance their food. MSG may be riding this wave back to respectability… This article explores the history of MSG, its discovery, ridiculous vilification and argues that it’s now seasoned for a welcome return.
In 1908, over a bowl of seaweed soup, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda asked a question that would change the food industry forever: what gave dashi, a ubiquitous Japanese soup base, its meaty flavour?
In Japanese cuisine, dashi, a fermented base made from boiled seaweed and dried fish, was widely used by chefs to add extra oomph to meals–pairing well with other savoury but meatless foods like vegetables and soy. For some reason that was generally accepted but inexplicable, dashi made these meatless foods meaty–and Ikeda was determined to find out why.
Ikeda was able to isolate the main substance of dashi–the seaweed Laminaria japonica. He then took the seaweed and ran it through a series of chemical experiments, using evaporation to isolate a specific compound within the seaweed. After days of evaporating and treating the seaweed, he saw the development of a crystalline form. When he tasted the crystals, he recognised the distinct savoury taste that dashi lent to other foods, a taste that he deemed umami, from the Japanese umai (delicious.)
It was a breakthrough that challenged a cornerstone of culinary thinking: instead of four tastes — sweet, salty, bitter and sour — there were now five. A new frontier of taste had been discovered, and Ikeda wasted no time monopolising on his discovery.
He determined the molecular formula of the crystals: C5H9NO4, the same as glutamic acid, an amino acid designated as non-essential because the human body, as well as a large smattering of other plants and animals is able to produce it on its own.
In the body, glutamic acid is often found as glutamate, a different compound that has one less hydrogen atom. Glutamate is one of the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitters in brain, playing a crucial role in memory and learning. The FDA estimates that the average adult consumes 13 grams of it a day from the protein in food. Non-meat food sources like tomatoes and Parmesan cheese have high levels of glutamic acid.
In 1909, Ikeda began mass-producing Ajinomoto (meaning “essence of taste”), an additive that came out of his creation of the first method of industrially producing glutamate by way of fermented vegetable proteins. The resulting sodium salt form of glutamic acid (the acid with just a single sodium molecule) became famous for its ability to imbue a meaty flavour into dishes, or just naturally enhance the flavour of food.
It was touted as a nutritional wonder, helping bland but nutritious food become delicious. A growing number of Japanese housewives used the product, and by the 1930s, recipes included Ajinomoto use in their directions. The sodium salt of glutamic acid remains prevalent today–anyone who has eaten KFC or Doritos has ingested it; it’s just known by a different name: monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
SmithsonianMag.com: Read the full article
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