Food History

The Cultural Journey of MSG in America

July 13, 2018

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.

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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.

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“My friend's allergic to pineapples. Doesn't mean it's bad for everybody.”
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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.

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.

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Thomas W. May 12, 2019
Wow. Look at those comments. Talk about sensitivity! Of course, if you are allergic or sensitive to something ... avoid it. The point being made in this article is that the vast majority of people think that MSG is simply bad for you, which is not true. It is like all the people avoiding gluten when they don't have celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten. They have just been misinformed. Just because some people are allergic to penicillin, it is good for the rest of us. Enough. You get my point. Good article. Thank you Food52.
Fragon November 18, 2018
About the time I entered puberty in the early 1960’s I began having reactions to food in Chinese restaurants— including one my family had frequented for years. My head would suddenly feel as if it was in a vise: intense pressure at the sides of my head and moving down into my jaw. No sympathy from my family, who thought I was just a whiny teen wanting attention. I remember once dining out with people I didn’t know we’ll at a very fancy place and spending an hour — terrified and in great pain — crying in the bathroom because I didn’t want to embarrass my family in front of their friends. A few years later when an article about “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” showed up in the family bible — the New York Times — my family apologized. And I was then able to “eat Chinese” again because Restaurants stopped using - or at least reduced - MSG. I haven’t had that particular headache since, despite much travel in this country, Europe and east Asia.
So what am I to make of this article? First off, the notion that racism was involved is hogwash. There was plenty of racism against anyone who wasn’t white, of course, but at least in the NYC metropolitan area Chinese food was beloved by almost every ethnic group. Second, glutamate and sodium are naturally occurring in the body and things we eat all the time, so the syndrome couldn’t be real - but the authors don’t address quantity. Could it be that the amount of MSG routinely used in Chinese restaurants at the time was triggering a response?
I too am concerned that Food 52 is publishing a sponsored article that pushes a particular point of view that has as little evidence as the stories from the 60s. Umami flavor is so wonderful— wouldn’t some research be useful here?
juwu_eats July 16, 2018
It makes me sad to see such an article published in a website that I love so much.
I had multiple reactions after eating MSG loaded food.
Is a sensitivity like any other. It would help if it was clearly marked in labels etc.
Cory B. July 16, 2018
Hi juwu_eats,

We're sorry to hear about your experience. We very much understand that some people are allergic to or sensitive to glutamate and acknowledge this in the article. This is not the case for everyone (people who don't have a problem will naturally occurring glutamate in foods like tomatoes or parmesan probably won't have a problem with MSG), but people who have a known glutamate sensitivity or allergy should stay away, as you mentioned.
Matt July 15, 2018
Wow this is such bullshit. Glutamine sensitivity is very real, especially to the people who need to create their entire diet around making sure they don't eat it for their mental and physical health.

With the regard that food52 gives to other "fake" allergies like gluten intolerance (which also "isn't real") I'm surprised they ran this article. I guess the copy editors have never known anyone with a MSG allergy, not have they known anyone with Autism.

Shame on you foo52 for taking money for this sponsored article.
Cory B. July 16, 2018
Hi Matt,

We very much understand that some people are allergic to or sensitive to glutamate and acknowledge this in the article. This is not the case for everyone (people who don't have a problem will naturally occurring glutamate in foods like tomatoes or parmesan probably won't have a problem with MSG), but people who have a known glutamate sensitivity or allergy should stay away.

We're sorry this article didn't resonate with you and hope you'll find something else to like!
P July 14, 2018
This article is such BS!!
I'm highly allergic to MSG! It's put me in the hospital several times!
jecca July 14, 2018
My friend's allergic to pineapples. Doesn't mean it's bad for everybody.
Cory B. July 16, 2018
Hi P,

We're sorry to hear about your experience. We very much understand that some people are allergic to or sensitive to glutamate and acknowledge this in the article. This is not the case for everyone (people who don't have a problem will naturally occurring glutamate in foods like tomatoes or parmesan probably won't have a problem with MSG), but people who have a known glutamate sensitivity or allergy should stay away, as you mentioned.