Is MSG the culinary bad guy we’ve been told it is? It’s been around for more than 100 years. But one day, monosodium glutamate became one of the things to avoid. MSG has never gone away, and finally, it’s making a comeback.
Hello Again, Dear Readers:
After I read last week’s published post to BF, he informed me that he has three New Year’s Resolutions this year, and he’s mostly accomplished one of them. It’s a long story.
In my case, I’ve decided that I’d like to get up early again, every morning. I’ve done a fair amount of it since BF went back to work since he’s been working many early days. The trick is to keep getting up early every day no matter how long BF hibernates. I’m not there yet.
I found something interesting that I thought I should pass along. But before I begin, I must mention two things:
- There are a few live Amazon affiliate links, which may send me a few rubles if you click and buy anything, not just what I described
- Remember that I’m a food blogger, not a medical professional. If you have concerns about using MSG, ask your doctor and maybe do a little research before you start sprinkling. Chances are you’ll find plenty of information on both the plus and minus sides, so it’s up to you to decide for yourself.
Now let me tell you what I found.
What Is MSG?
Monosodium glutamate is a flavor enhancer used in many processed foods like canned soups and seasoning blends like this one.
Commonly used in Asian cooking, MSG is a type of salt made from a natural amino acid called glutamic acid. Despite the similar-sounding name, there is no gluten in MSG.
It’s a white crystal-like powder made by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses.
Much like salt, it’s added to enhance savory flavors and used to add the “umami” taste to foods. (Keep reading for that one.) But it doesn’t have the same amount of sodium as salt does.
But is it the allergen we’ve been led to believe? Some people may be sensitive to it and experience flushing or headaches after consuming MSG. It’s similar to people who are allergic to another type of food, such as egg or wheat.
The Umami Factor
Most people know about the four tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. But there’s a fifth one, that’s known in Japan as umami, or the “savory” or “meaty” taste. Umami is present in meats, fish, soy sauce, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese, and is believed to be caused by the presence of other amino acids in foods.
MSG adds to or enhances the umami in foods during cooking but isn’t necessarily a thing on its own. Just like adding a touch more salt to a dish, MSG enhances the umami that makes it taste even better.
Where You Find MSG
Asian cuisines are well known for using MSG in dishes such as:
- Chinese dishes, like Kung Pao chicken and hot and sour soup
- Japanese dishes, like miso soup and teriyaki sauce
- Thai dishes, like tom yum soup and green curry
- Vietnamese dishes, like pho noodle soup and spring rolls
Back in the day, MSG was popularly available in the US as a product called Ac’cent™ .
(The name is trademarked by B&G Foods in Parsippany, NJ.) Now you can buy MSG from multiple vendors, like Badia, a brand I bought in Houston.
And I just discovered that Texas’ own Fiesta Spices sells MSG, although I’ve never seen it in a store:
You don’t see ads for MSG anymore. But years ago, one television ad featured none other than Sammy Davis, Jr. One cute commercial told cooks to “wake up their food” with Ac’cent™, and another spot from 1986 featured soothing sax music (no doubt marketed to housewives of the era.)
Making A Comeback
It’s been years since I’ve even thought about MSG, much less looked for some. But it’s always been available, despite the negative press. Today, it’s still available as Ac’cent™ as well as other brands, and available nearly anywhere. I didn’t see it on my last trip through Albertson’s in Hammond, but found it in our local Winn-Dixie, on a lower shelf.
But I’ve never even paid attention to MSG since it was allegedly “unhealthy.”
The other day, BF was watching CBS Mornings while we were eating breakfast. I happened to look over and see a segment on Asian restaurants who are again embracing the use of MSG. I also found a little more info on the CBS News website.
If you’re old enough to remember, you might be thinking, “wait a minute. Isn’t that the stuff that created a big brouhaha in the 1970s about how it was unhealthy for everyone?” It is. Well, 50+ years on, times have changed and we know more than we used to. It’s been time to look at MSG in a new light.
Appropriately, it figures that Asian chefs would pick up the torch and begin using it again.
Now, that’s not to say that MSG was ever banned from the market. Far from it. In fact, after the news that MSG caused health problems, it was still available, just avoided by a lot of people. Like me.
MSG is useful for savory foods but does nothing for sweet foods. (That’s OK, there are plenty of other ways to enhance sweets!) Because I have no experience with it, I’ll tell you what it says on the Ac’cent™ bottle:
- Add ½ teaspoon per pound of meat.
- Add ½ teaspoon for each of 4 to 6 servings of soups, stews, casseroles, sauces, salads, and vegetables.
That’s not a lot of MSG. Honestly, on a couple of chops I cooked for dinner, I gave a light sprinkle on each side along with the seasoning salt I used. (They were good!) Ac’cent™ has 60 mg of sodium versus 194 mg of sodium per 0.5 grams of salt, which is helpful if you’re trying to cut down on sodium consumption.
Honestly, it’s something you can sprinkle in lightly or use a small amount as directed. More will likely not result in a significant improvement and may ruin your dish. B&G’s website has more information on using their product, and even a few recipes.
Is It Unsafe?
Surprise—it really isn’t unsafe unless you have a reaction, just like anything else. So how did MSG get this reputation and decades-long bad press?
Well. . .it started with a letter allegedly written by Chinese-American doctor “Robert Ho Man Kwok” back in the 1960’s to the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine. In the letter, the alleged doctor described what he called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” which began the campaign against MSG.
Guess what? That letter and the named “syndrome” was a hoax. No kidding. Fifty years later, everything that came from that letter is based on a hoax. Someone made up a fake Chinese name, and it just took off like a snowball rolling down a steep hill. Amazingly, it’s still in the NEJM’s archives behind a paywall. Makes you want to believe in BigFoot, doesn’t it? (Check out a couple of pictures of the elusive beast that I’m sure BF has already seen.) Colgate University has more on the fake Chinese doctor story if you want to read more.
Scientific research into MSG’s safety is the subject of debate since the hoax began. The “news” also set off reams of negative press against the Chinese. Lots of racism and ethnic negativity started because of the one letter that had no truth to it–long before social media!
Despite claims of symptoms such as headaches, flushing, sweating, and difficulty breathing after consuming MSG, scientific studies have never consistently found a link between MSG consumption and any reactions. That’s not to say no one would suffer these side effects, but they’re not a widespread problem as we’ve been led to believe. Just like a milk or wheat or soy allergy, not everybody has the same experience.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The FDA states that MSG is safe to consume at normal levels and that most people can tolerate MSG in normal amounts without reactions. But restaurants and food producers must list MSG if they’ve added any—just like other allergens.
If you know you’re sensitive, check the ingredient lists of foods before consuming something.
Are You Allergic?
MSG isn’t unsafe, really, unless you experience a reaction after consuming some. But think about it this way—if you know you’re allergic to eggs, milk, shrimp, corn, wheat, nuts, or like me, soy, you avoid the allergen, right? Treat MSG the same way. If you have any concerns, always consult with a healthcare professional before using or consuming MSG.
But you knew that already.
I Bought Some
For the first time in I don’t know when I bought a bottle of Ac’cent™ to try in our cooking. Lucky me, Winn-Dixie had it on sale. I expect that little bottle to last a long time.
I don’t think I have a single recipe anywhere that calls for MSG, but that’s OK, I’ll try some. I’ve used it once, and so far, so good. I’ll let you know if it’s good, or bad, or does anything bad to the food. Or us.
But considering MSG’s consistent culinary use over the last 100 years, and the availability of Ac’cent™ in grocery stores since 1947, it can’t be all bad, right?