MSG has long been the food world’s bad boy. Short for monosodium glutamate, it has been demonized for at least two generations by food purists convinced it dumbs down flavor and quality, and by habitués of Asian restaurants, worried they’ll fall victim to “Chinese restaurant syndrome” —headaches, nausea or other symptoms often blamed on eating foods thought to be high in MSG.
But MSG is “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and it’s still out there in the nation’s foods, notably in processed products.
Monosodium glutamate looms so large on the culinary landscape that when Michael Pollan speculated on an American “flavor principle” in his new book, Cooked, he was left with two choices: Heinz ketchup – used “to domesticate every imaginable kind of food” – or the “familiar” taste of fast food, which he describes as “salt, soy oil and MSG.”
MSG is a form of glutamic acid, one of the protein-building amino acids. It was born out of research conducted in 1908 by a Japanese chemistry professor who extracted glutamates from a seaweed stock and claimed it offered a unique “fifth taste,” or “umami.” He patented his discovery, and commercial production of MSG began the next year under the brand name Aji-no-moto, or “essence of taste.”
Today, MSG is made by fermenting “starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses,” according to the FDA, in a process the agency says is similar to that used in making yogurt, vinegar and wine.
MSG, a white powder, is sold at most supermarkets under various brand names. You can use it like a seasoning, sprinkling it into foods as you cook. Food manufacturers who use MSG in their products must list it on the label.
MSG has yet to recover from the onus of Chinese restaurant syndrome. Leslie Stein, science communications director for the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, an independent institute that studies taste and smell, is somewhat surprised at the lingering taint on MSG. “There really is no evidence it has a deleterious effect,” she said, dismissing the “syndrome” as an “old wives’ tale.”