Editorials

In defense of Deliciousness: demystifying MSG

Welcome to the inaugural installment of my Food & Dining column on The Sexy Politico! Since we try very hard here to create a space where all topics can be explored through evidence-based discussion, I intend to debut by bursting right out of the gate and wading directly into the turbulent waters surrounding…

MSG!

Did you scream? Is your pulse elevated? Are you sweating yet? Perhaps you’re feeling weak. I won’t blame you if anything of these things are true. (At least, not yet.) There exists no other food additive that sparks such anxiety and has been made such a culinary pariah–not even FD&C Red Dye No. 40–as monosodium glutamate. Why is it that the moment you think of of MSG you automatically assume that the context is going to be bad?

The genesis of the tenacious controversy over MSG can be traced back to a Letter to the Editors in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. A physician wrote a letter relating that he and a number of his colleagues experienced unpleasant symptoms after eating at a local Chinese restaurant. These included heart palpitations, a numbing sensation in the lower back and arms, sweating, and general weakness & malaise. He speculated that the cause was the heavy-handed use of MSG. The NEJM published this letter under the inflammatory headline Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and followed up on the topic editorially in following issues. The news media irresponsibly neglected (imagine that!) the fact that the initial letter and subsequent treatments were pure speculation and promoted the idea that MSG caused the freshly-minted Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. In no time at all, an amino acid attached to a sodium molecule became vilified.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of toxicological, nutritional, and biophysical investigations in both human and animal models have failed to find any confirmation of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or to confirm any negative effects stemming from consumption of reasonable quantities of MSG. And yet, the substance continues to have such a stigma attached to it that Asian restaurants all over the country proudly post signs indicating that they do not use MSG; Korean-American chef David Chang was challenged by a female guest in 2012 who claimed that she was suffering from heart palpitations as a result of his kitchen’s use of the compound. Chang has repeatedly affirmed that his restaurants do not use powdered MSG whatsoever.

Plagued by so much neglect and angst, this molecule is subject to a persistent misunderstanding. It is my intention here–using evidence from science, history, and modernist culinary techniques–to briefly treat the history of MSG as we know it, its use as a flavor component, and the biological role it plays in humans and other animals. All of this shall serve as an attempt to demystify, defend, ultimately rescue the molecule from decades of misinformed scorn and instead restore it to its rightful place in the modern American kitchen.

What is MSG?

MSG is an acronym of monosodium glutamate; it is the ionic sodium salt of glutamic acid. Upon contact with water

in the external environment or within the human body, it dissociates into a free sodium ion and a molecule of glutamic acid. Before examining the compound itself and its origins, it is important to have a working knowledge of its constituents:

Sodium ions are familiar to us from sodium chloride–table salt–which is an ionic compound composed of one sodium ion and one chlorine ion. Sodium is an essential nutrient; it acts in ion channels throughout the body–most especially in neurons. Fairly inoffensive. It is sodium’s partner in this molecule, glutamic acid, that is really the locus of interest. Glutamic acid is an amino acid, only one of nearly 500 that have been identified. Amino acids are the puzzle pieces from which proteins are built. (While “protein” may at first dredge up associations with muscle fibers and body builders, the entire human body is, in fact, composed of proteins.) There are nine essential amino acids, which means that they cannot be synthesized de novo by the human body. When we talk about a dish like rice & beans being a “nutritionally complete” protein, we mean that it contains adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids that the human body cannot synthesize from scratch.

Glutamic acid, or glutamate, is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that it is readily produced by the human body. It is still important for the human body to function, however. Glutamate plays a key role in metabolism by assisting the body to eliminate excess nitrogen. Glutamic acid is absolutely essential to nervous system function–it is the most abundant neurotransmitter in mammals, is the principal modulator of nerve excitation, and is important in memory encoding and learning. Glutamate receptors are prolific throughout the human brain & digestive system. It’s so important to the human body that it is present in breast milk at 10 times the concentration of cow’s milk. Monosodium glutamate is just ionic compound composed of both of these two important nutrients for the body and can be readily found in natural settings.

The starting point of our current understanding of MSG can be found in an anecdote about a bowl of soup related in Harold McGee’s culinary compendium On Food and Cooking (2nd Ed., Scribner, 2004): In 1908, a Japanese chemist at the Tokyo Imperial University named Kikunae Ikeda was eating dinner with his family. In the middle of a bowl of cucumber soup, he was struck by how umami it tasted that evening. (Umami is often roughly translated as “delicious.”) Stirring the bowl several times and examining its contents, he determined that the addition of kelp was responsible for its amazing flavor. So touched by the meal and this revelation, he devoted the rest of his career to investigating why kelp made things so umami.

Within six months, he had identified the brown alga kombu, a type of seaweed commonly used in Japanese cooking, is rich in MSG. So rich, in fact, that in its dried form, MSG crystallizes on the surface. Nothing biochemical, modernized, or industrious about it. Shortly thereafter he coined the term “monosodium glutamate” and patented a process to extract it from wheat gluten and defatted soybeans. (Glutamate owes its name to gluten–another food pariah. But that’s a separate article altogether.) In 1909, a company was formed in Japan that used Ikeda’s process to extract and precipitate MSG for commercial sale. The corporation, Ajinomoto Co., Inc., is itself named for the remarkable quality that MSG contributes to food; Aji no Moto translates as “Essence of Taste” and is still the trademark for their MSG products.

In the 107 years since, a number of other foods and processing techniques have been identified as containing or enhancing MSG. If you’re keen on beefsteak tomatoes, aged Parmesan cheese, Jamón ibérico & other dry-aged meats, fermented products like miso, soy sauce, & even vinegar, and a several shopping baskets’ worth of other ingredients, MSG is responsible. In fact, dry-aged meat and Parmesan cheese contain more MSG per unit weight than kombu.

MSG & taste: mo’ umami, mo’ betta

The umami taste that MSG lends to food is a fundamental quality a chef considers when trying to cook something delicious. It has become a veritable buzzword in commercial kitchens. While the Japanese word refers directly to a particularly-enlightening bowl of cucumber soup, it may be best understood to the modern chef & diner as describing foods that possess something about them that makes them savory. This property is distinct from the four “classical” tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.

In fact, umami actually is a taste sensation all on its own. Research neuroscientist Charles Zuker and his team, who had previously identified the cells that act as taste receptors for sweet and bitter compounds, set out around the new millennium  to investigate whether there was a receptor for amino acids. On February 25, 2002, Zuker, then at the University of California, San Diego, published a landmark paper in Nature (416(6877)) that vindicated the claims of chefs & diners of all backgrounds who claimed certain dishes had a little something extra. He had found concrete evidence of the existence of a fifth type of taste receptor on the human tongue and palate; he and his team called it umami in deference to the groundwork laid out by Kikunae Ikeda almost a century prior.

The taste that MSG lends to food, then, is a basic constituent of the eating experience and as such is an important consideration in cooking. When I’m trying to cook a dish and want the end result to be full-flavored, it obligatorily must contain something that will stimulate my guests’ umami receptors. With this knowledge, a contemporary chef cannot discount MSG and related compounds when formulating a recipe. (IMP, inosine monophosphte, & GMP, guanosine monophosphate, are compounds found in katsuobushi and shiitake mushrooms, respectively. IMP was first identified in the second decade of the 20th Century and GMP in the 1960s. While sensory scientists are still investigating these compounds, it is understood that the three are synergistic. That is, small amounts of one enhances the sensation of the others.)

Mo’ MSG, mo’ betta? Not so fast!

I would love to be able to bundle all of the previous thousand-some words up into a neat little package, wrap it in butcher’s paper, and send you on your way. However, I think it ought to be abundantly clear by now that this is a large, complex, and in-process subject. While it’s easy enough to lead off by debunking the frustratingly persistent illusion that MSG is somehow harmful, this issue quickly balloons.

MSG is a prevalent component in food. Even if your favorite Asian greasy spoon declares that they “use no MSG,” that claim is a lie. Just because there isn’t a half kilo tub of the stuff from Ajinomoto right above the noodle-cook’s station does not mean that MSG is not present in the establishment. David Chang doesn’t cook with the powder directly, either, but instead focuses his efforts on “harnessing” that satisfying umami taste through techniques like drying, aging, microbial inoculation, and manipulation of enzymatic pathways in his ingredients. If you still suffer from the delusion that you’re sensitive to MSG, you should treat every menu you read as if the stuff is being sprinkled about in the kitchen.

As a chef, I find that the real tragedy in all of the drama and controversy surrounding MSG is the frustrating aspect of how it has been corrupted to offer a cost-effective and flat sham for truly good, stimulating food. Some chefs and establishments treat MSG as if it were some magical substance that can be used to buttress otherwise unremarkable dishes. Fuchsia Dunlop remarks in Land of Plenty that “it is a bitter irony that in China of all places, where chefs have spent centuries developing the most sophisticated culinary techniques, this mass-produced white powder should have been given the name wei jing, ‘the essence of flavor.'” Certainly, the informed & responsible use of salt is called for in cooking because it makes food taste more like itself. And sure, dumping 10 grams of MSG–which contains one-third the sodium than Maldon or Fleur de Sel–into my stock will unquestionably make it delicious. But is this an acceptable approach to cooking? I think not.

I share the opinion of Lars Williams, Head of Research at the Nordic Food Lab, that a good chef should not lean on crutches. If we are to truly embrace good, clean, & fair “slow food,” an approach to cooking characterized by thoughtful intention, we ought to develop flavor in our food through careful manipulation and processing of our starting ingredients. That’s how we’ll truly achieve Better Living Through Chemistry.

The real lesson here, however, goes far beyond the rather focused case-study of monosodium glutamate and umami: Eating & nutrition are complex systems. Foods are complicated materials. All of us, every one, ought to recognize the risk in attempting to draw an arrow-straight line between an ingredient and a poorly-defined collection of reactions. More broadly, and more importantly, we would all do well to cultivate an understanding of the seriousness of carefully and critically evaluating proposals of cause-and-effect. –SBS

 

Executive Editor’s note:

It’s discussions like these, and the larger lessons, that I intend to give focus to in this column and with my work more broadly as the Executive Editor at The Sexy Politico. I sincerely hope you’ll accept my invitation to join us as we take all the difficult topics, hot-button issues, and major controversies and demonstrate that they’re neither Red nor Blue; we’ll be filtering everything through our Purple-colored glasses.

Please keep an eye on this space as I continue to bring my scientific, culinary, and historical knowledge to bear on Food & Dining topics. I hope to help paint things a deep shade of violet by discussing things like:

Why is everybody suddenly “gluten-intolerant?”

A much-needed takedown of black pepper’s undue reign as a “seasoning.”

Does your server/bartender/line cook actually earn a living wage?

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Xavier

    May 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Who care about MSG how has no one complimented this man on his Breaking Bland image? I’m still laughing genius.

  2. Rachel DeTaante

    May 15, 2015 at 1:46 am

    Such an informative piece! I can tell you probably have decades of culinary experience! I don’t know anyone who is a chef that knows so many aspects of food in general this well! Do you own a restaurant and if you do where are you located? I want to make sure and come to your restaurant if I’m ever near your location! I’ll be surely referring anyone who I discuss this topic with to this post! Thank you for the insight!

    Sincerely,

    An aspiring chef in culinary school

    • SB Swae

      May 16, 2015 at 5:58 am

      I’m glad to hear that you’ll be treating my article as a reference piece! Perhaps together we can dispel the unfortunate myths that plague discussions of MSG in the US. I’d be very curious to know what opinions your instructors have about the topic.

      I do not own my own restaurant as I do most of my cooking privately. While I did get all of my experience by putting time in at commercial kitchens and with a wide range of cuisines, I have less time in the industry than you might think–I’m only in my twenties and have never attended culinary school!

      If you learn your material well and work hard, I’m sure you’ll meet with success in your chosen field.

  3. Rob K

    May 14, 2015 at 8:17 am

    This is some of the best writing I’ve ever read. I still think the main point again is msg’s abused state. The harm is in chef’s overuse, as you have said. When we go dining and take in so much of it other food starts to taste less and less flavorful without all the extra msg. Not only that but it starts to be less filing. I’m an American currently live in Indonesia and it took me months to feel full after a meal that was larger in size but less in msg.

    Do you think that something can be done about the abuse? I agree that it’s not horrible for us in the sense counter-culture has been delivering but that doesn’t alleviate the fact that to an extend their concerns are actually viable until something is done.

    • Taylor

      May 15, 2015 at 2:15 am

      Rob, I would have to disagree with your idea that after moving to asian as an american you never feel as full when you eat. I found that in the states I was always bloated and tired but when the army stationed me in south korea for two years i felt the best i ever have. I was full and energized after every meal and when i came back i found myself hungry after most meals because i couldnt eat that nasty food that made me feel bad. Now i have my own garden and only shop at organic stores to try and recreate the feeling food gave me in korea. Nothing will ever be as good as korean food and food without all the shit american cooks puts in it.

      • SB Swae

        May 16, 2015 at 6:05 am

        Thank you for your comment, Taylor. All voices and sides are welcome to have a discussion at The Sexy Politico.

        I can somewhat echo your experience in your time abroad: I spent a season in India a few years ago. In addition to suffering from culture shock upon returning to my home country, there was a great quantity of food available that was utterly unappealing.

        I’m very pleased to hear that you tend a garden and raise some of your own food. In your own way, you, too, are embracing the Slow Food movement. I do have one thing to add, however: While I encourage everybody to buy organic–or better yet, local–whenever it’s feasible, the value in organic food is not for its nutritional value but rather in the absence of chemicals and techniques known to harm soil and the environment. Pesticide and fertilizer run-off is becoming an increasingly desperate problem in waterways all over the globe.

    • SB Swae

      May 16, 2015 at 5:50 am

      Rob, many thanks for your flattering compliment! I’m very pleased to hear that you appreciate my writing and hope that you continue to visit my column and TSP itself as we embark on this exciting new project.

      I think we might differ in our assessment as to what extent MSG is “abused.” In my opinion, MSG is abused because it continues to receive such a negative perception when there is, in fact, no scientific basis for the fear and misinformation that plague any discussion of the substance.

      The much-maligned status of MSG in the public’s eye means that most establishments are loath to even mention its name. Any self-respecting Asian eatery posts “no MSG” signs because we continue to cook & operate in the shadow of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. As you can see here MSG isn’t exactly a hot commodity in this country. I’ve encountered MSG more regularly–but still very seldom–in only the finest dining establishments. In those environments, MSG isn’t used like a “crutch,” but rather out of respect and with the knowledge that it does, in fact, have culinary value. You’ve likely consumed more MSG living in Indonesia than you ever did back home.

      I will unashamedly admit that I use MSG in my cooking. But I do my utmost to use it responsibly. I ended my piece with the acknowledgement that MSG ought to be handled carefully. It is no substitute for wholesome ingredients and skillful preparation. When I can, I choose to use techniques like dry-aging, fermentation & pickling, and careful manipulation of helpful bacteria to enhance the content of glutamate and other amino acids in my food.

      I am not a registered dietitian, so I am not quite sure what to make of the fact that you struggled to feel satiated in Indonesia. I have a friend in-country, though. I will be sure to ask whether or not she can verify your experience.

      I hope that this follow-up has been helpful. I also hope that you’ll continue to visit us here at The Sexy Politico!

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