Monosodium glutamate is delicious but it freaks a lot of people out. And that’s a shame. MSG is one of the most maligned ingredients in modern cooking, but it’s also one of the most pervasive. From instant ramen to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hidden Valley Ranch, and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, MSG is found in many of your favorite convenience foods. Ever wonder why nacho cheese Doritos taste like heaven? A lot of the credit belongs to MSG. Given its frequent inclusion in cheap convenience foods, you might be tempted to write off MSG as another commercial food additive that has no place in the kitchen of ordinary people wanting to cook real food. But you’d be wrong. Over the past several years, a number of high end chefs and food writers have come to the defense of MSG, emphasizing that it’s not only tasty but totally safe. David Chang, Harold McGee, and Dave Arnold have all gone out of their way to educate the public on the gospel of glutamate. Grant Achatz carries a shaker of it with him wherever he goes. As it turns out, there’s no good reason that MSG should only be used by mass-market conglomerates catering to the lowest common denominator. Chances are, your food could benefit from a dose of MSG’s meaty, savory goodness. But before we cover the various ways you can mix some MSG into your ManBQue, what exactly is MSG? And why are people so afraid of it? Is it really safe?
The story of MSG begins in 1908 with a Japanese chemist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda. Ikeda’s research focused on investigating the nature of taste, sorting out what chemical compounds produced various sensations we get from different foods. At the time it was believed that there were four basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) but Ikeda suspected that something was being left out of this standard model. He proposed a fifth taste which he called “umami” from a combination of the Japanese word “umai,” which means “good” or “delicious,” and “mi,” which means “taste.” In short, umami is deliciousness. Ikeda observed that while this rich savory taste was familiar to our palate, not much was known about what, exactly, we are tasting when we experience umami. It was known that the sensation of sweetness is elicited by sugar, sourness by acids, and saltiness primarily by sodium. But no one knew what drove our perception of savory flavors. Ikeda was determined to find out.
Ikeda’s investigations revolved around a key ingredient in dashi, the mother stock of Japanese cuisine. Dashi is made by steeping kombu (a type of kelp) in water with flakes of dried bonito. Ikeda set out to isolate and identify the flavor compounds in kombu which were responsible for producing dashi’s distinctive savory taste. His experiments lead him to the discovery that glutamic acid is the chemical most responsible for our perception of umami. Other scientists would soon discover that inosinate and guanylate are also responsible for umami flavors, but they are much more rare. Glutamic acid is a common amino acid that is found in all living cells. It’s also a neurotransmitter that your brain produces in quantities much greater than you’d ever consume in food. Ikeda presented his findings in the 1909 paper “New Seasonings.” Shortly thereafter, he patented a method of isolating glutamic acid and stabilizing it via the addition of a single sodium atom so that it could be stored for long periods of time. That is, he patented a method for mass producing MSG. Ikeda went on to found the food additive company Ajinomoto – whose name means “the essence of taste” – which remains the world’s largest producer of MSG to this day. They also make other fun products like meat glue, but that’s a topic for another day.
Ikeda’s choice to focus on kombu was a lucky one. It turns out that kombu has the highest glutamate content of any food in the world, so much so that you can actually see crystals of glutamate on its surface. The white powder which coats the dark green kelp is essentially a repository of natural MSG. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is the kombu of the Western world in terms of its high glutamate content. The crunchy crystals that you’ll find in high quality parmesan are crystallized free amino acids, including glutamic acid, which form as milk proteins in the cheese break down during the long aging process. Other foods containing high quantities of free glutamic acid are tomatoes, shiitake and porcini mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce and tamari, miso, dry cured ham, and Vegemite. While these are all great ingredients for upping the umami quotient of your recipes, sometimes you just want to add a punch of savory flavor without adding the other tastes and textures that can come along with these foods. That’s when I reach for my container of MSG.
Commercially produced MSG has been used for over 100 years in Japanese cuisine, and was introduced to the United States in 1947 under the brand name Accent. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that people began to have concerns about its safety. Before getting into the nitty gritty of the MSG scare, it should be noted that the FDA has classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe” since 1958 and that no study has conclusively linked MSG to negative symptoms. But if that’s so, why are so many people afraid of this ingredient? As it turns out, it all started with a letter.
In April 1968, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine sharing his experiences after eating large amounts of soup from Chinese restaurants in the United States. In this letter, he claimed:
“I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations…”
This constellation of symptoms from eating Chinese food was dubbed the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (and later came to be known as “MSG symptom complex.”) Kwok speculated about the causes of this syndrome, suggesting that Chinese cooking wine, MSG, or the high sodium content of many of the dishes could have been to blame.
For better or worse, people fixated on the suggestion that MSG was responsible for producing the symptoms and a flurry of research ensued. Most of the initial studies were conducted on rats and mice less than 10 days old, whose nervous systems had not yet fully developed. Typical experiments in these studies involved either force feeding rats massive doses of MSG or injecting MSG into their blood stream (or sometimes even directly into their brains). Given that the doses of MSG administered were vastly greater than what a person could ordinarily consume from food (and that some doses were given intravenously) it should be no surprise that neonatal mice and rats exhibited negative symptoms.
Shortly after this first round of studies, research on human subjects began. Over the next 20 years, over 19 studies on humans attempted to gauge the impact of MSG on humans. These were ostensibly blind studies in which half the participants are given MSG and the other half are given placebo (though some studies didn’t bother to actually administer a placebo). The results of these studies were mixed, but many suggested that MSG could produce symptoms like those reported in Kwok’s letter.
The problem with these studies is that they were insufficiently rigorous and were marked by serious methodological problems. A 1993 paper by Tarasoff and Kelly provided a literature review of these studies and explained why all of them suffered from one or more of the following problems. Some studies administered doses of MSG in the absence of food, which is not how people typically ingest MSG. A large dose of anything on an empty stomach is liable to produce ill effects. What’s worse, most of the supposedly blind studies gave participants MSG dissolved in a liquid like coffee, bouillon, orange juice, or water (!) instead of in tasteless gel capsules. Since MSG has a strong and unique taste, this methodology effectively invalidated the “blindness” of the studies. A glass of OJ or water with MSG does not taste like ordinary OJ or water. An additional problem was that some studies actually suggested symptoms to participants, asking them if they were experiencing particular systems rather than simply asking participants to report how they were feeling. Though this may have seemed like a good idea to the experimenters (who were interested in whether MSG produces particular symptoms), it effectively biases participants toward reporting certain symptoms rather than others.
Tarasoff and Kelly conducted their own study designed to be immune from the sorts of errors listed above. Their results found that the vast majority of subjects reported no responses to both placebo (86%) and to MSG (85%) when administered in gel-caps along with food. Those who reported symptoms did so at similar rates for both MSG and placebo, leading Tarasoff and Kelly to conclude that “realistic scientific evidence connecting [Chinese Restaurant] syndrome to MSG could not be found.” Since this study, there have been a number of new experiments and multiple literature reviews which have all concluded that consumption of MSG cannot be linked to any negative symptoms or health impacts in normal circumstances. Some studies suggest that large doses can trigger symptoms in a small percentage of the population when consumed in the absence of food, but these results were inconsistent and not reproducible when participants were given doses multiple times. Moreover, when MSG was given with food no symptoms were reported. As I mentioned before, the FDA classifies MSG as “generally recognized as safe” and notes that “although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.”
That said, high doses of MSG can kill you. But the same is true of water. A 1990 study on mice and rats attempted to find the median lethal dose (or LD50) for oral consumption of MSG. (A LD50 is the dose at which half of the population who receive it will die.) The study reported that oral consumption of MSG could produce death by seizure and loss of muscle control at doses of 16400mg per kg of body weight. If you’re paying attention, that dosage is equivalent to a 180lb man eating almost 3lbs of pure MSG in one sitting. Good luck with that. By contrast, table salt will kill half of the rat population at a rate of only 3000mg per kg of body weight. That means that MSG is more than 5 times less lethal than table salt… at least if you’re a rat.
To sum up, MSG won’t produce negative physiological symptoms and it won’t kill you unless you eat it by the pound or inject it directly into your brain. So don’t do that. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t real problems with MSG being added to foods. A legitimate concern regarding MSG is that it is most commonly used to make low quality, unhealthy, highly processed foods taste better so that we’ll eat more of them. This is a genuine problem. But it is not a problem with MSG per se, but rather with how MSG is used in the industrial food system. (There are similar problems with sugar, corn syrup, and salt.) However, if you begin with high quality ingredients and cook them well, MSG can elevate the flavor of many of your favorite recipes and bring out the best in your food. It is to that subject that we now turn.
Monosodium glutamate tastes like deliciousness and it’s totally safe to consume. So how should you use it? The most important thing to remember when using MSG in your cooking is that MSG has an extremely powerful flavor and should be used in relatively small amounts. My 2lb canister of Accent is basically a lifetime supply. If you use too much, your food can take on a harsh unpleasant taste. The same thing is true of table salt… too little salt and your food may be bland; too much and it’ll be altogether inedible. As with salt, you want MSG to bring out the flavor of your food rather than imparting a distinct, separate taste of its own. So I’ll repeat: it’s best used sparingly. I tend to add it by the pinch or the dash, seldom using enough to measure out.
If you do want to measure it out, a good rule of thumb is that you should use roughly 1/2 teaspoon of MSG per pound of meat. When seasoning meat directly, you’ll want to add MSG prior to grilling, roasting, or smoking. When you’re adding it to soups and stews, on the other hand, you’ll want to add MSG at the end of cooking so that you can get the concentration right. If you add it too early, your soup might reduce and leave you with a higher concentration of MSG than you intended. I tend to sprinkle in a small amount just before serving, checking the flavor to see if I want to add more. If you overshoot you can add more water or stock to dilute the soup and bring the MSG level down. For liquids, the ideal amount of MSG is between .5% and 1% by weight of your broth; that’s between 5g and 10g per liter.
MSG makes a great addition to spice rubs, which is why you’ll find it in many off the shelf spice blends. I incorporate it into my rubs for ribs and pork shoulder and also use it to season flank steak and chicken thighs for fajitas. MSG is quite nice in ground beef and barbacoa for tacos. It’s is also a good way to beef up the savory flavor of chili, gumbo, and jambalaya. MSG is an obvious friend to Asian stir fries and soups. I always add a pinch to my homemade pho broth before serving. The same goes for my chicken noodle soup. Speaking of meat broths, MSG is a great way to boost the savory flavor of gravy. It’s an unsung hero of my holiday table. Less obviously, MSG excels at bringing out the flavor of deep fried foods. When frying chicken or other breaded items, add some MSG to your flour or bread crumbs in addition to whatever other seasonings you’re using. Colonel Sanders may use 11 herbs and spices, but he also uses MSG. In almost everything. Breading aside, MSG makes a delicious final seasoning for potato chips, French fries, and onion rings… or anything deep fried, really. Combine 4 parts salt with 1 part MSG (by weight!) and grind in a coffee grinder or spice mill to get a uniform texture. Use the mixture to season anything that comes out of your fryer.
Hopefully these suggestions will inspire you to experiment with adding MSG to your recipes. This ingredient has been demonized for no good reason and has been pushed out of our pantries by decades of unsound research and the general fear of ingredients with scary, synthetic sounding names. But given that monosodium glutamate is entirely safe and entirely delicious when used properly, it deserves a second look from anyone who has been avoiding it all these years. Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.
Steingarten, Jeffrey: “Why doesn’t everybody in China have a headache?” in It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. New York: Vintage, 2003.
Mahoney, John. “The Notorious MSG’s Unlikely Formula for Success”. Buzzfeed (but it doesn’t suck) 2013.
Taliaferro, Patricia. “Monosodium glutamate and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: A review of food additive safety”. Journal of Environmental Health, Vol. 57, No. 10, Jun 1995.
Freeman, Matthew. “Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: A literature review” Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 18 (2006) p. 482–486.
Williams, A.N. and Woessner, K.M. “Monosodium glutamate ‘allergy’: menace or myth?” Clinical & Experimental Allergy, Vol. 39 (2009), p. 640–646.
Sand, Jordan. “A Short History of MSG: Good Science, Bad Science, and Taste Cultures.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and culture, vol. 5, no. 4, (2005) p. 38–49.
Tarasoff, L. and Kelly, MF. “Monosodium L-glutamate: a double-blind study and review.” Food and Chemical Toxicology. 1993 Dec;31(12): p. 1019-35.