Is MSG Really Bad For You?
Debunking a long-running food myth that MSG is bad for you.
We all have our own secret ingredients that we prefer to keep to ourselves. It’s what makes that special signature dish, special. Sure, I have mine. Yet, one of my secret ingredients was more like a dark secret, similar to a skeleton that had to be stashed in the closet and never mentioned. That secret ingredient is MSG, or monosodium glutamate. It’s an ingredient that I use in many of my sauces and rubs. You see, I know the power that it holds. Unfortunately, MSG gets a bad rap. I kept it a secret not so much for secret ingredient’s sake, but I didn’t want to hear the “MSG is bad for you” crap.
The whole notion that MSG is bad for you began when some clown wrote a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. The author claimed his symptoms of numbness, weakness, and headaches began after eating at a Chinese Restaurant, and therefore must be because of the MSG commonly used in Chinese cuisine. He referred to it as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Yet decades of research have found no link between MSG and numbness, weakness, and headaches in most people, though a small amount of people will experience very mild symptoms after eating like a pig at a Chinese restaurant. The same would probably occur at most any restaurant for that matter.
So, you can imagine my joy when this week, the brains behind the American Chemical Society, a congressionally chartered organization representing professionals and researchers in the field of chemistry, released a video designed to dispel the myth that MSG is bad for you.
As it turns out, glutamate is a compound naturally found in food as well as in our own bodies. The sodium part is just a vehicle to carry the glutamate which makes it easy to sprinkle on our food. So, what’s the point of using MSG in our recipes? Before we dive into that, let’s get that skeleton dressed and out of my closet by confirming that MSG is not really bad for you. Watch the American Chemical Society’s video as they debunk MSG’s evilness.
Since the basis of my little secret is now out of the bag, let’s explore why MSG has such a powerful impact on food flavoring. It was always my belief that MSG had an effect on our taste buds. It opened up the sensory cells to the point that flavors became enhanced. It also opens up sensory cells that typically don’t function. While my theory has never been scientifically confirmed, it has yet to be refuted. Yet, maybe my theory has been confirmed. The part of my theory that suggests MSG opens up sensory cells that typically don’t function may in fact be what science now refers to as umami, or the fifth taste.
Umami? What the hell is umami? To answer that question, the folks at Accent (the number one food additive, in my opinion) put together this informative article:
We all know there are four basic tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Did you know there’s a fifth taste? That savory fifth taste is called “umami.” Here is how umami came about:
Scientists and chefs knew for a long time there were four basic tastes, and then almost simultaneously, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a well-respected French chef and a Japanese chemist discovered that we indeed have a fifth taste as well.
French chef Auguste Escoffier created veal stock, and noticed that it wasn’t sweet, sour, salty or bitter or even a combination. It was something else. Across the world, Kikunae Ikeda ate a bowl of dashi soup and had a similar sensation.
Ikeda wrote that what he was tasting was “common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but… not one of the four well-known tastes.” So, he chemically dissected the ingredients of dashi and discovered what was responsible for this new taste sensation—glutamic acid. And he gave it the name “umami.”
In Japanese, “umami” means yummy or delicious. Over time, other scientists and researchers confirmed Escoffier’s and Ikeda’s findings and named the flavor “umami” in Ikeda’s honor.
You may not realize umami is in your food, but it is often what makes the food savory and delicious. So next time you taste something that’s not sweet, sour, bitter or salty, know that what you’re experiencing is likely umami.
Basically, the tongue has 10,000 taste buds, each containing specific cells that are designed to be receptors for the sensations of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and now…umami. The Western “umami” breakthrough came in 2000, when researchers at the University of Miami discovered a specific receptor designed to recognize glutamate, one of the principal amino acids that give off the umami taste.
To further illustrate the concept, NBC’s Jenna Wolfe reported on the fifth taste on the Today show.
In addition to enhanced flavor, umami has some great advantages. David Kasabian, author of The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami, says understanding umami can be helpful in a number of ways. “The truth of the matter is foods that have umami we find to be very delicious and very satisfying. Foods that don’t have umami we tend to find very insipid and very thin and not very satisfying. And as a result we eat more food. So, umami-rich food creates satisfaction.”
“Also, umami makes salt taste saltier. So, if you want to reduce the amount of sodium that’s in your diet, you make sure you have a lot of umami in your food and you don’t have to salt it as much. Finally, umami creates a sensation that chefs call mouth-feel. We tend to think of mouth-feel as the sensation we get from eating fat. So, again, we can reduce the amount of fat that’s in our food by making sure that we’ve got enough umami in that food.”
Now that MSG has been let off the hook, it’s time to embrace it and incorporate it into your recipes. There are many ways to add flavor to your dishes—MSG is just one of them. As with most food and ingredients, the key is balance and moderation. So whether it’s Accent, soy sauce or any another flavor enhancer, just enjoy!
Sources used for this article:
Mark my words: You will be hearing a lot more about Umami.
As professional chefs and the food industry itself push the envelop of flavors, umami will play heavily in those efforts. What was known for centuries in the Orient is now beginning to be understood and utilized by the rest of the world. And it’s not all about MSG. It’s about conquering that fifth taste.
To prove my point, cookbooks concentrating on umami are beginning to hit the store shelves. A search at Amazon reveals two cookbooks specializing in the field of umami. Both books are new and were only published in the later part of this year. I believe there’s more to come.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m looking forward to it. Give me more flavor!
Are these just the beginning of a long list of umami cookbooks?
Umami: The Fifth Taste
by Michael Anthony
In Umami, ten of today’s most renowned chefs explain how they discovered this fifth taste and the ways in which it has had an impact on their cooking. Two of the chefs are Japanese (Nobu and Murata), but the others come from around the world: the U.S. (Anthony and Kinch), the U.K. (Blumenthal and Cursan,), France (Bourdas and Nagae), and Peru (Martinez and Schiaffiano). Despite their diverse backgrounds and locations, however, they all have in common an understanding and appreciation of umami, and the unique ways in which they’re able to use it to maximize the exquisite flavors of their culinary creations.
For each of the eight main contributors, there’s a two-page color spread featuring a personal essay about umami, and photos of the chef and his restaurant. Then the chef presents four recipes that showcase the fabulous umami-rich dishes that have earned his establishment its Michelin star(s). The recipes incorporate fresh, local ingredients and use no butter or oil, so they are…Read More
Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste
by Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk
Combining culinary history with recent research into the chemistry, preparation, nutrition, and culture of food, Mouritsen and Styrbæk encapsulate what we know to date about the concept of umami, from ancient times to today. Umami can be found in soup stocks, meat dishes, air-dried ham, shellfish, aged cheeses, mushrooms, and ripe tomatoes, and it can enhance other taste substances to produce a transformative gustatory experience. Researchers have also discovered which substances in foodstuffs bring out umami, a breakthrough that allows any casual cook to prepare delicious and more nutritious meals with less fat, salt, and sugar. The implications of harnessing umami are both sensuous and social, enabling us to become more intimate with the subtleties of human taste while making better food choices for ourselves and our families.
This volume, the product of an ongoing collaboration between a chef and a scientist, won the Danish national Mad+Medier-Prisen (Food and Media Award) in the category of…Read More