Don't Be Scared of MSG

The food additive doesn't deserve its bad reputation-and it's actually quite delicious.

The food additive doesn't deserve its bad reputation-and it's actually quite delicious.

Monosodium glutamate might seem more dangerous than interstate highways, high-sodium diets, and vaccination shots combined. It might seem as evil as Monsanto and as toxic as Love Canal. But the science behind one of food's most maligned ingredients is not so simple.

Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid that forms with salt to make monosodium glutamate. It's found in Parmesan cheese, ketchup, fermented soy sauce, anchovies and everything else that comes from the sea. These foods tend to have a rich, mouth-coating sensation that, outside the lab, has undergone a rediscovery as the "fifth taste": umami (pronounced "oo-MA-mee"). As the British chef Heston Blumenthal wrote in the Times of London, "It's a bit like introducing a new color that we have been looking at all our lives but never recognised before."

MSG was first extracted and patented in 1908 by chemist Ikeda Kikunae from a seaweed commonly used to the make the traditional Japanese soup stock konbu dashi. The extraction was sold in Japan as Ajinomoto and marketed as "the essence of taste," providing a delicious, scientifically enlightened way to cook at home. Mainland China later adapted MSG as a vegan substitute for meat stock. Then, in 1968, the peculiar syndrome probably most associated with the chemical appeared. In a letter to New England Journal of Medicine, a Maryland doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, said he felt numbness and palpitations after eating at restaurants serving northern Chinese cuisine. The journal called it "Chinese restaurant syndrome."

In the subsequent decades, in what is either a prolonged placebo effect or a massive conspiracy, hundreds of people have been afflicted with the syndrome. Even the glutamate-laden konbu dashi broth from which the chemical was extracted now comes with the label "No MSG," Probably because it's hard to market something associated with headaches, castration, and brain damage. One neurosurgeon, Russell Blaylock, claims the food additive damaged the brain through excitotoxicity-essentially by exciting brain cells to death.

But Dave Arnold, technology director at The French Culinary Institute and a food science writer at Cooking Issues, says many studies on MSG are flawed. The studies on humans often inadequately mask the flavor or fail to have a control group, and the data from studies on rats and mice are sometimes misinterpreted. "What we have is a bunch of wingdings out there who talk about exitotoxins and brain death. It's lunacy. Most of them are making lots of inferences that aren't supported by data."

Even the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the food-safety advocacy group, told the Wall Street Journal: “I don't see normal amounts of MSG as posing a risk to the vast majority of people.”

The recent recall of another related glutamic acid, hydrolyzed plant protein (HVP), raises questions about the food additive. But clearly, the problem is not MSG or HVP alone, but rather their association with a food industry built on adding flavor to make tasteless foods palatable, an industry that buys close to 21 million pounds of MSG each year for things like Cool Ranch Doritos and Big Mac Sauce.

MSG isn't as bad as you think, but it's still fair to ask why so much MSG is being used. When your food needs an additive-whether it's salt, MSG, or unicorn dust-it makes you think twice about why the underlying meal falls short.