Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meditations on MSG

Isn’t it about time for MSG (monosodium glutamate) to make a comeback in the culinary world? Although this flavor enhancer has been successfully eradicated in most of American cuisine because of the pervasive myth that MSG can cause adverse reactions and is unhealthy, MSG can truly bring a dish to life. Just ask the Chinese. At any restaurant in China one can order dish after dish of delicious delicacies and sprinkled on top are those delectable little crystals of MSG.

MSG is a flavor enhancer that brings out "umami" in dishes. Umami is considered the fifth flavor that our taste buds can recognize, the other four being sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Umami means savory—think of the heartiness of meat, mushrooms, or cheese. MSG adds a bit of this savory essence to food and brings more flavor to dishes that lack that hint of umami.

The issues associated with consuming MSG include the immediate effects of headaches, nausea, sweating, and some even argue that it contributes to Alzheimer’s and other long-term diseases. However, there does not seem to be any conclusive evidence for claims of allergies or Alzheimer’s. Blind studies continue to indicate that the so-called allergy to MSG is most likely a placebo effect. Glutamate naturally occurs in many living things, including food we eat, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and meat, and our bodies are designed to break it down. And although MSG contains sodium, it actually has less sodium per serving than table salt—perhaps a good addition to a low-sodium diet!

MSG is probably nothing to be afraid of and the FDA states that it is safe for human consumption, but the epidemic of fear of MSG continues to thrive in this country. Although most food purchased or cooked in America no longer contains MSG (even though it could contain naturally occurring glutamate), it can be purchased in Asian supermarkets. Look for packages or bottles in the spice section that contain white crystals. Try a taste test yourself by cooking a dish and adding MSG to one dish but not to the other—what do you think? If the Chinese cook nearly every dish with a pinch of this flavor enhancer, then perhaps it’s worth another try. Let go of the preconceptions of MSG and just see how it tastes—you might be surprised.


  1. Grandpa Rook loved MSG. In the 60s and 70s it was marketed as ACCENT. The TV advertisement showed people shaking it on food with bugle reveille playing. He would smother steaks with it before grilling. Mmmmmm. Sooo good.

    Your blog is super honey pie.

    Love, Dad

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  3. I can tell you that I have a severe allergy to MSG which puts me out of commission for about 24 hours.
    Whenever I eat food with large quantities of MSG, like Chinese food, I experience severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and pain.
    Please don't dismiss MSG allergies so easily. I think if you don't have them it's a lot easier to be so nonchalant about it.