What Is MSG, Anyway? Here's Everything You Need To Know

It stands for monosodium glutamate, but there's a lot more to it.
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MSG is one of the most notorious ingredients in the United States. The Japanese ingredient that’s commonly used in Chinese restaurants stateside, has been blamed for making people feel ill with symptoms ranging from headaches to asthma. (This reaction came to be known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.)

Many studies have been done to determine a relationship between the consumption of MSG and the symptoms that comprise the syndrome mentioned above, but they have failed to find a link.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to get to the bottom of what this controversial ingredient actually is.

What is MSG?

MSG, which stands for monosodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is actually a common amino acid that occurs naturally in a range of foods like parmesan, tomatoes and dried mushrooms, and it’s what makes those foods taste so flavorful and good. It’s also found human breast milk.

At the turn of the 20th century, a Japanese scientist ― more on him later ― discovered a way to isolate that glutamic acid in food and stabilize it with salt. This allowed the glutamic acid to be turned into a crystal you can shake onto your food.

MSG has an intense umami quality ― umami is essentially a savory flavor that doesn’t fall into the salty, sweet, sour or bitter categories of taste. It is basically umami in crystalline form.

A bottle of MSG, produced by Ahi-no-moto.
A bottle of MSG, produced by Ahi-no-moto.

How was it discovered?

MSG was discovered by Kikunae Ikeda, a University of Tokyo chemistry professor, in 1908. Ikeda was interested in what made dashi, a seaweed broth common in Japanese cuisine, so tasty. Ikeda studied the broth and in 1907 successfully isolated the chemical that is responsible for its umami flavor, which is monosodium glutamate. He patented the method for extracting MSG and got into the market of selling MSG commercially. His brand, Aji-no-moto, is still popular today.

Ikeda was also responsible for coining the word umami and its concept as a fifth taste.

MSG’s place in kitchens today

Some of the best chefs today, running some of the best restaurants in the country, use MSG. In fact, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago says it’s one of his top three kitchen staples. David Chang, chef of the Momofuku restaurants, not only uses it in his kitchens but devoted a whole 20-minute talk to the ingredient at the MAD Symposium, a conference focused on food topics held in Denmark.

Many home chefs still stay away from the ingredient, often for fear of potential adverse effects, and also because with so many foods at their disposal that have the same umami effect like the aforementioned parmesan and dried mushrooms, they can get by without it.

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