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MSG: Makes Stuff Good

You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism.
- Anthony Bourdain

As an umami enthusiast (crisps win over chocolate 99% of the time in my books) I’ve always been intrigued by MSG but have been scared off by the general stigma it carries. I decided to do a deep dive this month into what MSG actually is and whether or not it is actually bad for you. ​ MSG was made controversial after an eroneous (and xenophobic) link was made between Chinese food and headaches; it was branded “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” This is despite little evidence and the fact that MSG was actually invented in Japan. ​

So.. What is it?!

Well it doesn’t actually stand for ‘Makes stuff good’ - MSG is short for Monosodium glutamate. MSG was discovered in Japan in 1908 by a Japanese alchemist, Ikeda Kikunae, who was looking to discover the source of the ‘meaty’ taste in food products containing no meat, such as dashi - a broth made of mushrooms and seaweed. Kikunae was able to isolate the compound that created this flavour; glutamic acid, a nonessential amino acid which occurs naturally in ‘umami’ food like mushrooms. Sodium was added and thus MSG as we know it today was born. Kikunae even named the particular taste; ‘umami’ and so the now widely known ‘fifth taste’ is essentially MSG. ​ The use of MSG spread throughout Asia and eventually ended up being widely used across the rest of the world. Much like we see with vaccines and anti-vaxxers, it only took one faulty study showing a link between MSG and headaches to create fear around the product; “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. ​

How do you use it?

MSG is used as a seasoning in a similar way to salt. It does not replace salt and should be used in conjunction with it. It is recommended that you use ⅔ of your normal amount of salt and ⅓ MSG. To make life easier you could make a pre-prepared blend of salt and MSG to be used in your cooking. ​

My Eggsperiment

I had never used MSG in cooking before and decided to give it a go with some scrambled eggs. I made two pans of scrambled eggs in exactly the same way - one with MSG and one without.

I’ll be totally honest here.. I could not taste the difference.

I did some more research to find out why this was - MSG is a flavour enhancer and not an actual flavour in itself and so it does make sense that I couldn’t distinguish between the eggs. The sensation is described as a ‘mouthfeel’ rather than a flavour - you should be able to distinguish when something contains MSG or natural umami by the instantaneous mouth watering that occurs - think of eating sundried tomatoes and how your mouth instantly waters and continues to even after eating. That is the natural umami in the tomatoes! ​ Watch this space for some more MSG experiments.


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