Of all spices and additives, few have been as vilified by the Western kitchen as monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG. Claims of its adverse effects on the brain have left customers searching for bold print on menus assuring them the ingredient won’t be included. There are still people who vehemently insist that MSG is dangerous, but today’s culinary scene has seen a growing number of MSG advocates. One of its most vocal supporters is notable chef David Chang. He is the Korean-American chef and creator of the Momofuku restaurant group which has locations in New York City, Toronto and Sydney.
Chang has been trying to eradicate the stigma held towards MSG so that people can begin to view it more like salt than as an unnatural synthetic. In fact, when chemically engineered, MSG looks like white powder, which could be mistaken for table salt. To get this product, all a scientist has to do is combine one atom of the element sodium to the amino acid glutamate. Glutamates are neurotransmitters necessary for neurons to successfully fire and deliver messages.
Various foods naturally possess monosodium glutamate. Test kitchens across the globe, like Nordic Food Lab, are trying to find ways of harnessing the flavor without adding it separately. Tomatoes, cheese and seaweed are all rich in MSG. The extraction of MSG began in 1908 when a Japanese professor pinpointed that the glutamate component of seaweed broth was what made it so savory. This savory taste is now classified as umami and serves as the fifth flavor alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Nowadays the fermentation of molasses from cane sugar or sugar beets is another way of extracting glutamates.
Furthermore, Chang told at a lecture during the MAD symposium conference in 2012 that monosodium glutamate is digested by our bodies the way any vitamin or supplement would be. The body doesn’t even distinguish between added MSG and MSG that was naturally present. The New York Times says MSG began to get a bad rap in 1968 with the advent of Chinese restaurant syndrome, which is when after eating Chinese food an individual suffers from a variety of symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath or hives, to name a few. MSG was blamed, but no research has been able to prove that MSG has any link to Chinese restaurant syndrome. Rather, some people may have a sensitivity to the ingredient and react as if to an allergen.
The unfortunate publicity of many poor and inconclusive studies have demonized an ingredient that has actually, according to a 2000 study funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, been proven to aid digestion. Possibly fear stemmed from the idea that, as a neurotransmitter, this food is messing with our heads, but no neurological changes have been found in individuals with a high intake of MSG. The FDA labels it as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” which is the same classification for citric acid, cornstarch and Vitamin A. The only warning, at least from New York University nutritionist Dr. Lisa Young, is to be wary of its sodium content. So go ahead, order some miso, dip your dumplings in soy sauce and embrace nature’s gift of umami.