MSG myth

The flavour hit we love to hate

Why does MSG still have the ability to strike fear into the hearts of otherwise rational people? This article by Tim Hayward puts to bed the myth of terror around monosodium glutamate.

MSG, a white powder used in food preparation, is rarely used knowingly by home cooks but we know it’s used in Chinese restaurant cooking and in prepared and processed foods. There is little public understanding of exactly what it is, so myths and mistrust have grown around it.

Umami, the wonderfully useful description of a “fifth flavour”, had existed as an idea in Japanese cuisine for centuries. But it was Kikunae Ikeda, professor of chemistry at Tokyo Imperial University who in 1908 began isolating the elements that made his wife’s soup so delicious.

The culprit, it seemed, was kombu — what we call kelp — a leathery seaweed that can be poached gently in stock to deepen and enhance the flavour. It didn’t take Ikeda long to separate out and test the components of the seaweed flavour and, within six months, he had it nailed — sodium glutamate, a salt of glutamic acid, one of the amino acids that make up the proteins in animals and plants.

As smart a businessman as he was a chemist, he patented monosodium glutamate under the trade name Ajinomoto (flavour essence).

MSG is cracking stuff in the kitchen. It boosts other flavours without predominating — a bit like salt. Actually, we all use it. The average “foodie” would probably challenge you to a duel if you accused them of keeping a pot of MSG in the larder, yet all those secret tricks — the use of garlic, soy, dried shrimp, miso, Parmesan, tomatoes, dried mushrooms, the occasional cheeky anchovy — are ways of adding MSG.

Glutamate occurs naturally in all those foods and more.

“Chinese restaurant syndrome”, characterised by an ill-defined collection of symptoms ranging from limb weakness to dizziness, was first described in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 by Robert Ho Man Kwok.

The story fired the public imagination, growing to become a well-established urban myth. In a series of studies since, no association between MSG and the reported “symptoms” has been found but the strange, unscientific and arguably racist prejudice inherent in the legend continues unabated.

A food scientist I spoke to recently described an interesting test. If someone believes that an MSG-laden Chinese meal “gives them a headache” because of “the additives”, just sit them down to a similar-sized Italian meal and watch them dive in.

The average Italian meal has far more glutamate occurring naturally in its ingredients and will not produce any “symptoms” other than joy and satiety.

Food manufacturers and supermarkets love the MSG myth. They delight in trumpeting “no MSG” on packaging. Which is ironic really because this shorthand for healthy and pure ignores the fact that, in the absence of flavour enhancers, most manufactured food is made more appetising by a carefully tuned upping of fat, sugar and salt — the ingredients that increase “deliciousness” but at a very provable, measurable risk to health.

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t willingly and consciously jam as much glutamate as I can into my family’s food. I usually do it with high-glutamate basic ingredients but I also have a tub of pure MSG powder on the shelf.

Because I’ve worked with it for a long time and I understand what it can do to flavour, I’m happy to sprinkle in a pinch and it usually means that I avoid thoughtlessly adding less healthy things.

Used sensibly, MSG can be an ingredient that enables us all to live healthier lives.

Source: Financial Times

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