Kelp – the seaweed that sparked the biggest xenophobic food scare in the west. The three letters, that when printed on any ingredient list, is powerful enough to instil fear in even the bravest eater. To make a health food junkie drop a packet of vegetable crisps like a scalding hot potato. MSG.
This vilified ingredient had humble beginnings. It came to us from foreign shores, after its discovery by chemist Kikunae Ikeda in Japan. Ikeda noticed the bowl of piping hot soup his wife had set before him tasted particularly delicious. The secret ingredient, it turned out, was kelp. Ikeda set upon his quest to isolate the compound in this seaweed that was responsible for this punch of flavour, and his efforts culminated in the discovery of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). He named his creation ‘Ajinomoto’ (‘Essence of Taste’ in Japanese), and this flavour enhancer went on to make him his fortune. But today, MSG may also come under a multitude of different brand names.
For America, MSG was initially a triumph
For America, MSG was initially a triumph. On the brink of the processed food revolution, American’s newfound canned, frozen and dehydrated food lost their original flavour and became was dull and lacklustre. MSG was the hero that swooped in to enliven whatever was hidden behind the crinkly, silvery packets of their newfound convenience food.
And then – its fall from grace. In an opinion piece published in 1968 in the New England Journal of Medicine, biomedical researcher Dr Ho Man Kwok coined the term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ to define the constellation of symptoms he experienced after a meal in American Chinese restaurants. A throbbing headache, stomach-churning nausea, heart palpitations, pain radiating down his arm. He was initially unsure about the true culprit – but it was later decided that MSG was to blame. The piece went viral, MSG earned its ever-persisting bad rep, and Americans began shunning the ingredient they had once been so willing to embrace.
MSG earned its ever-persisting bad rep, and Americans began shunning the ingredient they had once been so willing to embrace.
Growing up in Singapore, Ajinomoto was ubiquitous in local food. My father vehemently claimed that he was terribly sensitive to its many atrocities. I learned from a young age to always ask for ‘no Ajinomoto’ when ordering food. We bought sauces and soups only if they were emblazoned with the claim ‘NO MSG!’ to reassure us. And we were not alone. In fact, 4 in 10 people go out of their way to avoid it. I truly believed that MSG was akin to poison, and scanned ingredient labels like a regular Sherlock Holmes. But, oh, how wrong I was.
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a sodium salt of the neurotransmitter glutamic acid (a chemical often found in the brain). It is responsible for adding an ‘umami’ taste – widely considered to be the fifth flavour, alongside sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Like it does it in kelp, MSG can occur naturally in so many ingredients. Tomatoes, grapes, mushrooms, parmesan. It can be found in the thick glossy paste in your jar of marmite. Why is it that we pile our shopping trolleys high with foods like these when we regard MSG as a scaremongering food additive from Asia?
Science has done little to prove ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. In 1969, food scientist John Olney claimed to have made some progress in narrowing MSG down as the culprit of the ailment. Mice injected with high doses of MSG under the skin were found to be shorter in stature, obese, with reproduction issues. Did this mean that MSG could be making us ill?
Human studies performed since have found no significant difference between groups given MSG and those given a placebo.
Olney was injecting vast amounts of MSG into these mice, in doses that we would never be able to consume through dietary intake. And Olney’s mice were being given the compound under their skin, while we ingest it, and it stays is metabolised our gut. Human studies performed since have found no significant difference between groups given MSG and those given a placebo.
The FDA in the US commissioned a large study in an effort to put an end to this eternal debate – and what they found debunked the myth that MSG had no impact on how you felt after a veritable feast at a dim sum restaurant – leading them to label the chemical as ‘GRAS’ (generally regarded as safe). Why the fear surrounding MSG arose, and still remains despite all the science proving otherwise, perhaps points towards the last vestiges of xenophobia in the West regarding food from Asia.
If someone eats something they believe will make them feel unwell, they may be likely to experience precisely what they fear
What about the symptoms one experiences after an indulgent meal in Chinatown? While the placebo effect is well known, it can also work in the opposite direction. If someone eats something they believe will make them feel unwell, they may be likely to experience precisely what they fear. If you are afraid your next bowl of MSG-sprinkle fried noodles, slick with oil and glossy with soy sauce, is going to give you an incessant headache, you could very well believe your fear into existence.
If you were to dip a finger into a packet of Ajinomoto and lick it, it would taste of nothing special, purely salty. But MSG is made better by the company it keeps. It makes food taste good. Like, really good. When added in sparing amounts, it excites the taste buds, enhancing the flavours already in attendance, making it dance with umami. MSG can bring to the table (quite literally) what no ingredient has yet been able to so powerfully. However, if you are too heavy-handed, it can do quite the opposite and ruin the flavour of a dish. So, be sparing. A little goes a long, long way.
MSG is a bona fide triumph for the food world, a deserving ingredient in any pantry
If my argument for MSG to be taken off the ingredient wall of shame has convinced you, you can hunt for the endearingly packaged, slender Ajinomoto bottles, with a panda face plastered on it, in your local Asian store. Sometimes it goes by a different name – including Flavour Enhancer, Savoury powder, umami powder, Essence… or simply ‘MSG’. It is brilliant in marinades, when tossed into a dry rub or whisked into your next salad dressing. In order not to overwhelm your tastebuds, use only a tenth of the amount of it as you are using salt. MSG is a bona fide triumph for the food world, a deserving ingredient in any pantry, and not a strange and dangerous food additive from the East.
Image credit: Yoppy