Food & Wine

MSG is natural, posing no threat to the general health

Updated: 04 Mar 2012
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MSG poses no threat to the general health


There is one Asian ingredient that has been controversial for decades: the infamous white crystallized powder, monosodium glutamate, aka MSG. It was first discovered by Japanese scientist Kikumae Ikeda in 1908, who created a new flavor known as umami, which translates to “deliciousness” in Japanese. However, many Westerners new to the ingredient complained of headaches, nausea and other symptoms after dining in Chinese American restaurants, causing a short-lived ban and an enduring bad rep. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t see MSG as posing any threat to the general public, yet it remains a highly stigmatized ingredient. Being part of a Chinese restaurant family, I grew up with MSG in my home-cooked meals and believe that these toxic tall tales are purely myth.


Monosodium glutamate occurs naturally as a breakdown product of amino acids, the basic components of proteins. I’m no science geek, but if MSG is broken down proteins that create umami flavors through chemical reactions, how is that any different than molecular gastronomy, a food science that physically and chemically transforms food? MSG has no flavor by itself, yet it infuses foods with a heartier and fuller flavor similar to savory meat. In fact, the main component of MSG, glutamate, can be found naturally in many ingredients such as mushrooms, over-ripe tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.


I don’t think MSG should substitute good ingredients or be used in high doses, because too much of anything isn’t good for you, but most people eat it all the time with no ill effects. Western grocery stores may not specifically carry MSG, but there are plenty of products there that contain the additive, including Doritos, chicken bouillon and ranch dressing.


The stigma against MSG is so strong that it’s extremely difficult to get any chef or restaurant owner to go on record in favor of it. Japanese yakitori restaurant Tori Tei has Ajinomoto Aji-shio MSG-coated salt on each table, but when I asked Chinese owner Mr. Deng why he chose to carry this product, he claimed it was just regular salt. After some discussion, he acknowledged that the restaurant does use a very little bit of MSG. This is exactly how my family cooks with this magical crystal seasoning—in moderation for marinating and garnishing. The proper way to extract the full essence of flavors and aroma is to sprinkle a pinch over high heat right before serving.


So for those suffering from psychosomatic syndrome, realize that MSG has had its place in the culinary world for over a century, and if you try it in moderation, you might realize it’s okay to indulge in umami, aka deliciousness.




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