The Truth About MSG

While planning a Koreatown dinner out recently, a couple of friends stated their preference for no MSG. What? No MSG?! We (or this writer, at least) love MSG! What's your take? Do you avoid eating it? Have you ever cooked with it? And what is MSG, anyway?

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavor enhancer that gives an umami taste to food. The additive, which is sold in a crystallized form similar to sugar or salt, is used in many Asian cuisines as well as in condiments, seasonings, bouillon cubes, and snack foods like chips. More specifically, the Food and Drug Administration describes MSG as

the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid and a form of glutamate ... Asians originally used a seaweed broth to obtain the flavor-enhancing effects of MSG, but today MSG is made by a fermenting process using starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses. Glutamate itself is in many living things: It is found naturally in our bodies and in protein-containing foods, such as cheese, milk, meat, peas, and mushrooms.

So why has MSG been so maligned and stigmatized? In the late 1960s, MSG was implicated in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS) a collection of side effects including headache, chest pain, flushing, numbness, and swelling. However, scientific studies have not shown any direct link between these symptoms and MSG. It's possible that CRS was the result of other food allergies.

We tend to share the perspective of food writer Jeffrey Steingarten who wondered if MSG is really so terrible, "Why Doesn't Everyone in China Have a Headache?" We also wonder why some people complain about MSG in Asian food yet have no problems with snack chips or glutamate-containing foods like ketchup. At the same time, this writer's own mother claims to have an MSG sensitivity, and we are loath to doubt her.

In our own kitchen, we use MSG in the form of favorite Asian condiments like Kewpie Mayonnaise and Maggi (more on that next week). How about you? Have you ever used MSG crystals? Do you care whether MSG is an ingredient in processed foods? Or are you in the anti-MSG camp?

Further reading:
Yes, MSG, the Secret Behind the Savor, from The New York Times
If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?, from The Guardian
MSG, Fake MSG + Umami, from Viet World Kitchen

Related: Umami Bombs: Use the Fifth Taste in Holiday Cooking

(Image: Flickr member FotoosVanRobin licensed under Creative Commons)