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What is MSG Why Do We Argue About It?

If you’re looking for a fiery debate among foodie friends, try bringing up MSG. Technically known as monosodium glutamate and responsible for a particular type of savory flavor, MSG has become polarizing stuff. Its use in cooking and its reported health effects inspire reactions normally linked to threads about, say, fluoride in water or vaccinations for children.

MSG didn’t become so contentious overnight. It has taken generations, from its humble beginnings at the start of the 20th century to restaurant bans and sanctioned limits on the stuff in some places today. MSG was likely dealt its biggest blow somewhere during wars between key countries and, sadly, an emerging international perspective set in the States that unfairly ridiculed certain Asian customs.

MSG monosodium glutamate
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Also known as E621 in Europe, MSG was first created in 1908. A Japanese biochemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered and patented the process, something he arrived at in trying to harness the unique flavor of seaweed. Which makes sense, as seaweed is one of the flavors it resembles most — that savory, meaty, briny, slightly vegetal quality that’s behind what many refer to as the “fifth flavor.”

Those in favor are drawn to MSG’s unique abilities as both a savory enhancer and flavor heightener. It’s behind the umami flavors we so often hear about, prominent in things like miso, aged cheeses, anchovies, and more. Because it’s been around for so long, MSG has come in and out of fashion, typically as a result of seemingly unrelated incidents.

In 1908, Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered and patented the MSG-making process, something he arrived at in trying to harness the unique flavor of seaweed.

Are we looking closely at the nutritional value of monosodium glutamate or living in the shadow of prejudices that arose during American wars with prominent Asian nations like Japan and Vietnam? You can safely bet that a lot of Japanese ideas weren’t exactly popular while Americans were operating Japanese internment camps. Oddly enough, MSG did enjoy a surge in domestic food use, especially in Chinese-American restaurants during the spawning of the baby boomers. But when we decided mechanized food was no longer for us, a seemingly manipulative additive like MSG was an easy target.

This is about when you would start to see “No MSG” signs waving proudly in restaurants, something that continues to some extent today. Clearly, the animosity toward MSG among a sizable portion of the western population did not simply come about because a chef decided it wasn’t tasty or a celebrity tweeted that it caused her to sweat and look flushed. It’s more the work of scapegoatism, when East and West were butting heads (again), and perhaps even an ill-informed health food movement.

no msg restaurant menu
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Those against MSG cite poorly researched studies and racist conditions like “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” or, the alleged headaches, sleeplessness, and other ailments affiliated with the ingredient (fortunately, it’s called something slightly better nowadays: “MSG-Symptom Complex”). Some have even theorized that MSG inhibits the body’s ability to detect whether it’s full, promoting overeating and, as a result, too much MSG in the system.

Prominent chefs are on both sides of the MSG aisle. Award-winning culinary minds like David Chang (Momofuku) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) devoutly support it. Others condemn it, vowing to never use it in their eateries or cookbooks. Some places even ban or set restrictions on the use of MSG in food.

If we’re going to throw MSG under the bus, we’d better be prepared to take a long look at salt, sugar, corn syrup, and pretty much everything else that combines to form the pillars of our food pyramid.

What’s really going on here? A couple of key things. First, like so many things, any of MSG’s bad qualities are almost certainly the result of excess. Like salt or butter or chocolate, too much is rarely a good thing where human health is concerned. Secondly, because it’s synthesized today and tends to show up as a drug-like batch of white crystals, it’s viewed as unnatural and potentially harmful. People are inclined to think it’s thrown liberally atop bad food to mask the flavors.

One of the major problems is that the negative press is based on little to no science. The aforementioned syndrome is more of a misunderstanding, like sulfites in wine. Unfortunately, that type of negativity is dragging an entire culture and its food down with it. To this day, a lot of well-meaning people are wary of the local Asian restaurant, convinced its use of MSG might be at the expense of their health.

David Chang - Starting a Conversation About Our Food on "Ugly Delicious" | The Daily Show

It’s tough to argue with a specific type of flavor you instinctively crave, something MSG puts forth. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with a natural flavor here, but one that’s been removed somewhat from that environment as part of the industrialization of food. If we’re going to throw MSG under the bus, we’d better be prepared to take a long look at salt, sugar, corn syrup, and pretty much everything else that combines to form the pillars of our food pyramid.

MSG is one of the most prevalent naturally occurring non-essential amino acids on earth. It’s a big reason you’re into mushrooms, tomatoes, grapes, and more. Most of the reasonable health studies conducted on the stuff suggest that it’s no more dangerous than many other staple cooking ingredients.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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