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.
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.