I do not know if you have noticed but lately you can't watch a cooking show without the word 'umami' being thrown about as the latest foodie buzzword. And while the umami is decidedly trendy, MSG is not. Where umami is exciting, MSG is still scary.
What is MSG?
Ken Lee, a professor and the director of food innovation at Ohio State University says
"MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. So sodium — everybody knows what that is — [is] the first ingredient in common table salt.” (Natural salt found in foods accounts for about 10 percent of a person’s total daily intake, according to the Food and Drug Administration.) Meanwhile, glutamate, the basic component of MSG, “is a synonym for glutamic acid [and] is a naturally occurring amino acid. It’s one of the building blocks of protein,” says Lee. In aqueous solutions, MSG breaks down to sodium and glutamate.
The taste receptor for umami was discovered by Chaudhari et al. (2000) which firmly established umami as the fifth basic taste. The umami taste receptor is specific for glutamate and it has been shown that shown that the taste of glutamate (and thus MSG) - cannot be reduced to any of the other four basic tastes.
How was it discovered?
Kikunae Ikeda was a Japanese chemist who was interested in the chemistry of taste. He was particularly keen to understand the particular taste of a broth called 'dashi'. Dashi’s main ingredient is a variety of kelp called kombu and he decided to break kombu down to its compounds and isolate the dashi taste. He started in 1907 by boiling down 90 pounds of kelp into a tarry resin. He then stripped out various salts and organic compounds over the next few months until he’d harvested a single ounce of brown crystals. When he tasted the crystals, he recognized the distinct savory taste that dashi lent to other foods, a taste that he termed 'umami', from the Japanese 'umai' (meaning 'delicious'). Ikeda eventually produce and market the seasoning under the product name "Ajinomoto" — literally, "quintessence of flavor".
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
In 1968, Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese-American doctor from Maryland wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine which claimed that after eating at Chinese restaurants, he experience unpleasant symptoms, namely “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back” and “general weakness and palpitation.” While Kwok was himself of Cantonese descent, he made it clear that he had only ever experienced this in America with ‘northern Chinese food’. He did not specify a particular ingredient but made a few suggestions (including MSG) as a possible cause for his ‘peculiar syndrome’
The response to Kwok's letter was large and extensive with readers claiming to suffer from the same affliction, termed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” . Some readers experienced same symptoms as Kwok, but most were extremely varied, ranging from cold sweats to extreme dizziness. In response, the Journal offered up MSG as the likely culprit for their reader’s unpleasant symptoms.
Racism and MSG
However what is little reported in the many articles on MSG is that the letters section of the NEJM is known for tongue-in-cheek discussions in the medical community. The majority of responses to Kwok were laced with exaggeration, hyperbole and also sarcasm with relation to racist stereotypes. Much of the humour was derived from the ‘fears of what was really taking place in the inscrutable Oriental kitchens’
To be suspicious of the goings on in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant was not uncommon... For many, suspicions of mysterious meats and other "excessive" practices were still present - Food Historian Ian Mosby
The NEJM suggested MSG as the likely culprit for their reader’s unpleasant symptoms. and (although the response was clearly satirical) news articles began to present the satire as accepted scientific fact. The New York Times was quick to pick up on the story in an article published on 19 May, ‘“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” Puzzles Doctors’.
More articles followed with headlines focusing on harmful effects of Chinese Food “Relief May be in Sight for Those Who Suffer From Chinese Cooking,” ,“Whatever It Is or Isn’t – Please Pass the Chop Suey,” “Four Scientists Find Chinese Food Fans Can Avoid Suffering,” , “Chinese Food Make you Crazy? MSG is No. 1 Suspect,”.
The racist view that Chinese kitchens employed underhanded and deviant practices was typified in a 1969 New York Times Article entitled“In Hong Kong it’s Dog or Snake at Lunch Now,”. The article detailed the consumption of illegal meats in Hong Kong, which were being hidden on menus under 'deceitful code names' and concluded with restaurateurs voicing their concern over the 'MSG problem'.
"For The Times, there was a clear connection to be made between the strange and underhanded use of dog meat and the use of MSG. The Times didn’t make this explicit, but the implication is clear: in the same way the sneaky Chinese might trick you into eating dog, they were just as likely to hide MSG into your food."
In November 1969 the New York City Health Department sent out an order demanding that MSG be used ‘sparingly when preparing food’ was sent out in English and Chinese to both manufacturers and vendors of Chinese food. They felt sufficiently confident that amounts of MSG used in Chinese restaurants were excessive despite a complete lack of scientific studies. The order was not sent to non-Chinese restaurants, nor was it sent to American food manufacturers. Chinese restaurants began to place ubiquitous ‘NO MSG’ signs on their menus and windows at this time, while MSG continued to be used widely by American food manufacturers such as Campbell’s, Kraft, Lipton, Knorr and Lawry’s, and fast food restaurants including Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Though MSG was widely used, the “MSG problem” was strictly Chinese.
Nowadays news stories are written regularly about the lack of evidence tying MSG to negative health effects. However MSG still has not shaken off it's historical stigma. Check out the following media which does a great job summarising this:
My name is Dan and I cook with MSG. All the time. I have a big bag of it on my spice rack. I add it to my Thanksgiving turkey gravy, my tomato sauce, the braised chicken thighs I made the other night. If you come to my house for dinner I’m probably going to feed you something with MSG in it. And I’m probably not going to tell you. Because people. Freak. Out. - Dan Pashman, James Beard Award-nominated creator and host of The Sporkful food podcast
A great episode of food podcast the Sporkful also explores the science, and as well as role that race and class have played in spreading misconceptions about MSG.
A metabotropic glutamate receptor variant functions as a taste receptor.Chaudhari N, Landin AM, Roper SD. Nat Neurosci. 2000 Feb;3(2):113-9.
Kwok, R. H. M. (1968). Chinese restaurant syndrome. New England Journal of Medicine, 278(14), 796.
Schaumburg, H., McCaghren, T., Menken, M., Migden, W., Kirk Rose, E., Rath, J., … Davies, E. (1968). Chinese-restaurant syndrome. New England Journal of Medicine, 278(20), 1122–1124.
‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980 Ian Mosby* Social History of Medicine Vol. 22, No. 1 pp. 133–151
Understanding Monosodium Glutamate Exploring food discourse and its social implications JENELLE REGNIER-DAVIES York Online Undergraduate Research Vol I (2014)
Uptaking Race: Genre, MSG, and Chinese Dinner Jennifer L. LeMesurier POROI Vol. 12 (2016) Iss. 2
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