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The Cultural Journey of MSG in America

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We've partnered with Ajinomoto Co. Inc. to celebrate our favorite taste—umami—with a series that digs into its history, its complexity, and its many, many culinary applications. Here, we’re exploring the umami-rich seasoning MSG.

Whether you realize it or not, odds are you've probably tried MSG—or at the very least you've heard the acronym, which stands for monosodium glutamate. The savory flavor enhancer is in all sorts of foods, from ones you could find at the bodega, like Doritos and Goldfish (yup!) to fancy restaurant dishes. It's a pantry staple for home cooks around the world and star chefs alike, and yet it's a subject of skepticism as brands and restaurants promote "no MSG." Demonized by some, it's gained a cult-like adoration among others.

So what's the backstory here—when did we start using MSG? And why do so many Chinese restaurants advertise that they don’t? How is it that a seasoning became so controversial? We did some digging to answer a few questions we've had on the topic.

Photo by Rocky Luten

What exactly is MSG?

In molecular terms, MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate: one glutamate ion combined with one sodium ion.

Science terms a little rusty? Let us rewind a bit. As we broke down in the first part of this series, glutamate (that would be the "G" in MSG) is an amino acid that’s an essential building block of protein. It’s naturally present in our bodies and also occurs naturally in many foods. Glutamate is responsible for the taste of umami, that rich, savory flavor found in things like Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, ketchup, and cured pork like bacon or prosciutto.

So, monosodium glutamate is basically the pure taste of umami isolated (glutamate), made shelf-stable by combining it with sodium. While the flaky white seasoning is technically a type of salt, it actually has two-thirds less sodium than regular table salt.

When did people start using MSG in America?

MSG took off in the US in the 1920s and ‘30s—more than a couple of decades after the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda first isolated glutamate in his Tokyo lab in 1908. While MSG was a big hit with Japanese home cooks at the time, in the US, the main market was industrial cooking; American food companies (including Campbell’s and Heinz) started to put it in soups, frozen dinners, concentrated chicken stock, and many other packaged foods to make them taste better. The ingredient found its way into American home kitchens, and stayed there for the next few decades, after domestic MSG brands like Ac’cent debuted in the 1940s. You could find magazine and community cookbook recipes listing Ac’cent as a special ingredient (in things like fried chicken batter, barbecue sauce, and more) well into the 1970s.

Why don’t we see recipes with MSG anymore?

In 1968, doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. He described a number of symptoms—cold sweats, dizziness, numbness, weakness—he felt after eating at American Chinese restaurants. He theorized it was from the Chinese cooking wine, high amounts of sodium, or MSG. It was just a hypothesis in a letter to the editor, not an actual study, but the idea that MSG alone led to those symptoms took off as a concept and became known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome."

Later studies, not to mention institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO), have debunked this as a myth, finding little correlation between MSG and these symptoms. In 1987, WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization came to the joint conclusion that MSG is a safe food ingredient. (After all, MSG is made of glutamate and sodium, two things that we already have in our bodies.) While certain people may have a sensitivity to glutamates, if you’ve eaten foods like tomatoes or Parmesan cheese without the onset of a headache, then you probably won't have an issue with MSG. The naturally occurring glutamate in these foods is indistinguishable from the glutamate in MSG once you eat it; your body processes all glutamate the same way.

If there was no science behind “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” why did the idea spread?

While other factors may have contributed to the skepticism surrounding MSG, a much-cited 2009 Social History of Medicine article by Ian Mosby, “That Won-Ton Soup Headache: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980,” may sum it up best. In it, Mosby theorizes that the stigma around MSG was a product of ethnic and racial fears at a time when prejudices surrounding Chinese culture were widespread in the US.

So, did the Mosby article change the public perception of MSG?

It actually started a little earlier than that. In 2003, the influential food writer Jeffrey Steingarten published an essay about MSG in his book, It Must Have Been Something I Ate, asking why everyone in China doesn’t have a headache.

Over the years, other food writers have gotten into myth-busting too, like Harold McGee, who appeared on the PBS show Mind of a Chef to dispel “the myth of MSG.” The New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner penned an ode to the seasoning, “An MSG Convert Visits the High Church of Umami,” just a few months ago.

David Chang, the chef-owner of the Momofuku empire, is an outspoken fan of MSG and umami in general. Check out exhibit A, below, from the chef's Instagram. (It's worth noting that Chang has cited the Mosby article, and Mosby appeared as a special guest on the fried rice episode of Chang's Netflix special, Ugly Delicious.)

While it's not very common to see American recipes that call for MSG as an ingredient, there are some outliers, including recipes in glossies like Bon Appétit.

If I want to try cooking with MSG, what’s the best approach?

Since there isn't an abundance of recipes out there in cookbooks, magazines, or food blogs, the best way to go about it is to experiment. MSG works in dishes where you want amplified savoriness—soups, meatballs, pasta sauces, vegetable dishes, salads. (It might be tempting to sprinkling some on a sundae à la salted caramel, but it’s generally not something that works well in desserts.)

Add MSG at the same stage you would regular salt—but remember to use less salt than you normally would while adding MSG (a good rule of thumb: cut the salt by 1/3). Here are a few suggestions for places to start:

  • You could mix a dash into your burger blend, and then layer on additional umami ingredients like aged cheeses, bacon, ketchup, or a slice of tomato on top.
  • Sprinkle some on steamed vegetables, which usually beg for some kind of seasoning, whether it be sauce or butter and salt & pepper.
  • Add 1/8 or 1/4 teaspoon to any dish, like pasta sauces or braises, where you'd typically add some umami boosting element (such as tomato paste or anchovies...all those anchovy-haters out there will thank you).
  • The next time you get creative with popcorn toppings, try adding a little MSG in there too.
  • Try a pinch on cold vegetable salads, like raw cucumbers or tomatoes, or chilled noodle salads. We think it works especially well with the recipe below.
Tomato, Cucumber, and Fresh Herb Salad

Tomato, Cucumber, and Fresh Herb Salad

Food52 Food52
Go To Recipe
Serves 4

For the salad:

  • 3-4 small Persian cucumbers
  • 2 heirloom tomatoes (preferably different colors)
  • 1 pint mixed color cherry tomatoes
  • 1 ball fresh mozzarella
  • 1 handful basil leaves
  • 1 handful flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 handful mint
  • Salt, pepper, and MSG, to taste

For the dressing:

  • 1 shallot
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 1 handful basil, parsley, and mint, roughly chopped
  • 1 dash salt and pepper, to taste
Go to Recipe
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Like you would with any other new seasoning, start out with a pinch (about 1/8 teaspoon), and taste as you go. Most kitchen experiments carry the risk you'll end up with a flop. But since umami is pretty much guaranteed to make your tastebuds sing, the odds are definitely in your favor with this one.

We've partnered with Ajinomoto Co. Inc. to bring you a series of recipes, stories, and videos that celebrate the fifth taste: umami. This rich, savory essence can be played up in almost any dish by adding a dash of MSG, a seasoning that's pure umami flavor.