Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Embracing MSG: The Rebirth of a Controversial Flavor Enhancer

A misunderstood modern seasoning

Many people believe that Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is harmful to their health, but some contemporary chefs are working to dispel these misconceptions. MSG was first isolated in the early 20th century by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda when he boiled down a considerable amount of kombu seaweed. He then dubbed the resulting flavor “umami,” extracted its key component, and turned it into a crystallized form for culinary use.

The reputation of MSG began to deteriorate in 1968 after a US doctor reported symptoms such as “numbness in the back of neck,” “general weakness,” and palpitations he experienced, which were later dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” due to them being related to Chinese cuisine. During this time, many families began avoiding MSG entirely, with some even turning to alternatives like chicken powder for similar tastes.

Fermentation process and myths debunked

Tia Rains, a Chicago-based nutrition scientist and vice president of customer engagement strategic development at Ajinomoto, educates people about MSG. According to her, the manufacturing process for MSG involves fermentation, similar to the methods used for brewing beer or making yogurt. Initially, plants with sugar – like sugarcane or corn – go through fermentation with microbes, creating the glutamate amino acid. Then, sodium is added to create a crystallized, salt-like substance called monosodium glutamate.

MSG cannot cause allergies because our bodies naturally produce glutamate. While some individuals may claim sensitivity to MSG, studies involving placebos haven’t successfully produced reactions in test subjects. However, it’s important to note that overconsumption of any additive, MSG included, may cause health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or stroke.

A new generation of chefs embracing MSG

Despite the controversy surrounding MSG, a number of renowned chefs are starting to embrace its usage in their cooking. Among them is Calvin Eng, owner of New York-based Cantonese-American restaurant Bonnie’s, who admits his love for MSG without hesitation. In fact, he even has the letters “MSG” tattooed on his arm and offers an MSG Martini cocktail at Bonnie’s — which has been awarded multiple Best New Restaurant accolades since opening in late 2021.

  • David Chang of Momofuku fame also advocates for using MSG.
  • Eddie Huang, a celebrity chef and author, has admitted adding MSG when preparing meals for his family.

This culinary shift reflects the changing attitudes towards the controversial seasoning, with many modern chefs emphasizing its ability to enhance food flavors instead of relying upon outdated notions of danger or harm associated with MSG in previous decades.

The science behind umami and MSG

Rains describes the science involved in umami and how it interacts with our taste receptors: “Our receptor for umami looks almost like a Venus flytrap under a microscope.” In layman’s terms, combining glutamate, the core ingredient for creating umami, with certain nucleotides results in increased umami sensation. She compares this to “getting multiple hits of umami to the brain.”

Using MSG responsibly and embracing its benefits

Chefs and consumers alike can benefit from incorporating MSG into their dishes if they keep a few guidelines in mind, including:

  • Being aware of individual sensitivities and moderating consumption.
  • Using MSG in combination with other seasoning ingredients to enhance flavors without resorting to high levels of sodium or sugar.

In conclusion, it’s time to put the outdated fears regarding MSG aside and appreciate how it can contribute positively to our culinary experiences. By better understanding the science behind this polarizing ingredient, we can break free from old stereotypes and create deliciously innovative dishes that showcase the power of umami, thanks to MSG.

Related Posts