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All About MSG

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The dialogue about MSG is giving us a headache. Let's clear the air.

It started in 1968. A letter, sent to the New England Journal of Medicine by a Chinese-American physician, asked an informal question with irrevocable implications

The question was this: Why, after eating at Chinese restaurants, did the author experience symptoms such as numbness, palpitations, and weakness? And could the headache he suffers after a Chinese dinner be the result of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer used frequently in Chinese restaurants?

The question allowed consumers to jump to immediate, albeit unfounded, conclusions: MSG is bad for everyone, and the restaurants that use it are worse. There’s no need to point out the negative effect these assumptions had on the Chinese restaurant business -- even today, after the fallacy of the “Chinese restaurant syndrome” has been largely discredited. Nevertheless, the misconception is still widely believed and practiced (through avoidance) today. We see it on TV; we see it in articles; we see it on Chinese-restaurant menus

So, in his 2003 book It Must have Been Something I Ate, Jeffrey Steingarten astutely (and semi-satirically) asked his own question in response: Why doesn’t everybody in China have a headache?

The short answer is this: MSG is probably not giving you a headache (unless you are one of the very few people with an intolerance).

MSG is a form of the naturally occurring chemical, glutamate. Glutamate is derived from glutamic acid -- the most common non-essential amino acid in the human body -- when it is cooked, ripened, or fermented. We taste this reaction in most foods we associate with comfort: meals based in broths, soy sauce, and fish sauce, as well as in whole foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed, broccoli, and Parmesan cheese (to name a few). In fact, Parmesan cheese ranks second in concentration of free glutamate, behind kelp -- yet, as Steingarten points out, we rarely hear people complain of a cheese headache. 

Ultimately, the rich, oomphy taste that glutamate lends to food is one and the same as the fifth taste -- umami. And, as an additive, pure MSG (which is derived from natural glutamate) imparts the same satisfying impression. Used in perfect harmony with the four other tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, and sour), umami has the power to enhance overall flavor immensely. It is also used as a preservative and as a tool to reduce overall salt intake without skimping on flavor. And, it is safe to consume at customary levels for those of us without a sensitivity. 

That being said, it's ultimately a personal choice whether to avoid the additive. But if you come across it on your travels or at the Chinese restaurant on your corner, don't scream and run toward the closest pharmacy -- your impending headache might only be as real as the boogeyman.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: umami, msg, Chinese food

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