For decades, the popular food additive MSG has been the target of controversy to the alleged health risks that it has been falsely claimed to carry. The stigma that has and continues to be associated with the popular flavour enhancer does not seem to ever fade away, despite years’ worth of research proving time and time again them to be baseless. The fact that MSG has brought forth the discovery of the fifth taste umami after sweet, sour, salty and bitter has had no effect on its reputation either.
MSG was discovered in 1908 by the Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda after devouring bowl after bowl of a delicious seaweed broth made by his wife. Fascinated by how much flavour the simple soup packed, it led to a sparked interest in him seeking whether he could reproduce the savoury taste in other dishes as well, Ikeda realized that the dried konbu (kelp) contained glutamate and that it was the cause of the new umami taste sensation.
Glutamate is one of the essential amino acids that our body naturally produces and also acts as a neurotransmitter meaning it helps cells in our body send signals to each other, Kikunae extracted volatile glutamic acid from konbu and then simply added salt and water to it, creating the stable Mono Sodium Glutamate the formula was then patented in 1909 and called Ajinomoto which translates to “essence of taste”. It didn’t take long for the additive to be a common household product in Japan with many Japanese cookbooks including it as a regular ingredient in their recipes, perhaps largely due to its ability to amplify the taste and intensity of flavours in the simplest of meals.
However MSG’s controversial history began almost 60 years later in the United States of America, when a scientist named Dr.Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England journal of Medicine (NJEM) describing concerns over a possible syndrome over symptoms he often faced when consuming Chinese food from restaurants in the U.S which would consist of headaches, nausea, pain that begins from neck and radiates to the back and arms, general weakness in the body and even heart palpitations the said syndrome was given the now infamous title” Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”.
Now you would assume that a journal of medicine would not simply publish any article warning the general public in large of a compound with disregard to reason or logic, but sadly this was not the case as proven by Professor Jennifer LeMesurier of Colgate University in New York with her article “Uptaking Race: Genre, MSG, and Chinese Dinner.” POROI, Volume 13, Issue 1, Spring 2017” that stated the letter and the activities that led to it being written were anything but a hoax and more or less a wager done in poor taste. To add sodium to injury, Professor Jennifer found and has also included in her article that racism had a significant role to play in creating distrust with the compound that continues to this day.
In the year 2000 science has discovered that we have a inbuilt umami receptors in our brains and stomach and an understandable argument could be made that because MSG succeeds in making food much tastier than it is, eventually leading to an increase in obesity, but we have been consuming MSG in its natural form for centuries through cheeses, tomatoes and even breast milk so it’s safe to assume that unless you have the willpower of a 3-year-old surrounded with unguarded chocolate chip cookies its best to rule out the possibility of being dangerously addicted to MSG.
Now granted Ajinomoto is an artificial man-made product used for consumption driven now with a commercial intent but so is margarine. We should reflect on ourselves in regards to our health and how we tend to it. So next time when you wake up from a food coma feeling bloated and uneasy from a night of binge eating sodas, chips and your favourite takeaway meal, try not blaming MSG as you swallow in your flavoured antacid.