A white powder with little taste of its own, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is one of the world’s most common food additives. Chemically speaking, it’s a sodium (salt) derived from glutamic acid (an amino acid, or protein). Commercially speaking, it’s a powerful flavor enhancer used in everything from canned soup to take-out chicken.
MSG began its ascent to ubiquity in 1908, when a Japanese chemist found it produced a savory flavor, distinct from the sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes recognized by gourmands of the time. He dubbed the flavor umami, Japanese for “delicious.” (Rich, natural sources of umami-producing glutamates range from cheese to mushrooms.) He further noted that a sea vegetable Japanese cooks had used for centuries was particularly rich in the stuff. Boom! Scientists went to work to extract it, and a multinational industry was born.
While the FDA maintains that MSG is perfectly safe when consumed at typical levels, opponents blame it for maladies ranging from ADHD to Alzheimer’s. If you suspect you might be sensitive, avoiding it practically requires a PhD in chemistry: MSG is a major component in a long list of additives with such sexy names as hydrolyzed protein and autolyzed yeast.
Interestingly, the health risks of MSG came to light only after major food processors found ways to extract it cheaply. Japanese cooks had used sea vegetables for years with no apparent health problems, and one of the first published reports of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” came from a Chinese immigrant who first experienced symptoms after moving to the United States.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.