As far as unpopular food substances go, few have inspired such revulsion as MSG. The seasoning is adored in Asia, but in the west, it remains taboo, more hated than even trans-fats or gluten. The prevailing opinion is that it's a dangerous additive, prone to causing headaches, heart palpitations or perhaps even cancer. My own aversion began with Ho-Lee-Chow – the once-ubiquitous Chinese-takeout spot in Toronto – and its neon "No MSG" signage. Seeing these warnings growing up, I quickly added MSG to the list of things I would never do, a list that included drugs, polluting and starting forest fires.
Yet is it so bad? Many in Western culinary circles are beginning to realize that this fear of MSG – monosodium glutamate – is at best misguided, and at worst completely unfounded. It's a fascinating flashpoint of misperception and food snobbery. Even at the height of MSG hysteria in the seventies and eighties, the additive was consumed in massive amounts in Doritos, canned soup, Clamato, KFC and other processed foods – much like it still is today.
A few weeks ago, forward-thinking San Francisco restaurant Mission Chinese Food placed salt shakers of MSG on its tables as a bold statement. (The chef, Danny Bowien, once quipped that Chinese food tastes "kind of horrible" without MSG.)
Foodie blogs such as Eater applauded the move. Other big-name chefs – including David Chang and Heston Blumenthal – have also vocalized support of MSG as an unfairly maligned ingredient.
"All evidence suggests that MSG is not harmful to you," Chang said at a MAD symposium in 2012. "It's a salt. And more importantly, it's a delicious salt."
According to Health Canada, MSG is generally "not a health hazard to consumers." The website does say that some people may demonstrate hypersensitivity to it, but numerous studies have shown that MSG allergies do not exist. In 2000, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study for the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology concluded that "neither persistent nor serious effects from MSG ingestion are observed."
As a kitchen ingredient, it adds a quick burst of umami, a unique flavour sensation outside of the four basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour and bitter). It's that addictive savoury quality you get when you can't stop eating chips, or that heart-fluttering euphoria that comes from really good sushi. This effect can take work to achieve: Toronto celebrity chef Susur Lee builds it with dried seafood or with heavily reduced ham stock or duck stock. MSG is often considered a shortcut, which may be (at least in part) why it's seen as déclassé.
In Canada, MSG is still common in classic Asian restaurants, though servers may get uncomfortable if you ask them about it. I consulted numerous chefs from outside of that spectrum, and none of them use MSG at their restaurants, even though they all spoke highly of it. A pair of well-known Japanese restaurants in Vancouver declined to even talk about it, because "MSG is such a hard topic to tackle."
Lee says that it's a crucial part of Chinese cooking, but he doesn't use it. If he does need a quick, savoury kick, he uses yeast extract, which he says is similar to MSG but has less "sugar sweetness."
MSG was created in the early 1900s by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda. He had been inspired by a particularly delicious bowl of dashi broth, and he wanted to know precisely why it was so good. The answer, he discovered, was glutamate, an amino acid naturally found in seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms and other foods.
Ikeda isolated the common amino acid and stabilized it with salt. The resulting white powder – monosodium glutamate – immediately became popular in Asia. Eventually, it became an additive in processed foods across North America; Canadians used it in their kitchens, too, with a branded version known as Accent (which is still available at grocery stores).
The trouble began in 1968, when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese-American biomedical researcher, wrote a letter to a medical journal describing a syndrome that seemed to be caused by food served at American-Chinese restaurants. Symptoms included weakness, numbness and heart palpitations. Theories suggested the condition – dubbed "Chinese-restaurant syndrome" – might be caused by Chinese cooking-wine, high sodium or MSG.
Newspapers and scientific studies were quick to blame MSG. "Chinese cooks around the world use MSG by the sackful," one newspaper wrote. Ian Mosby, a food historian from McMaster University, says much of the reaction stemmed from cultural prejudice and the widespread belief that Chinese restaurants were somehow "bizarre" or "unclean."
"People were afraid of MSG in a way that was kind of irrational," he says. "They blamed it on Chinese restaurants when it was quite obvious that they were consuming MSG in other forms."
Chinese-restaurant syndrome appears to be psychosomatic. Researchers have found that when you eat MSG, the salt dissolves and is treated by the body like regular salt, and the glutamate is treated in the same way as it treats glutamate from such natural sources as tomatoes or mushrooms. In a 2010 BBC documentary, a reporter invited four people who claimed to be MSG-intolerant to eat Chinese food that was, unbeknownst to them, MSG-free. Interestingly, it wasn't long before the diners began complaining about headaches and discomfort.
The bad reputation is persistent.
At Mr. Flamingo, a hip new snack bar on Dundas West in Toronto, chef and co-owner Fan Zhang admits that stigma, in part, prevents him from using MSG, even though he appreciates its culinary value. He makes his own MSG equivalent by mincing roasted seaweed and Maldon salt in a spice grinder. "This replicates the umami of MSG. It's a perfect seasoning for edamame, crudo or sashimi," he says. "I'm very aware of the misconceptions around MSG, but as a business person, I'd rather wait until mainstream acceptance has been achieved. And I'm able to build flavours without it."
Matthew Sullivan, chef at Real Sports Bar & Grill near the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, occasionally uses MSG in his home cooking. He says it's great with fried chicken, both in the brine and in the flour, and that it adds a nice kick to grilled meats. But he doesn't use it at work.
"I think the public needs to be educated more about it, and so do chefs," he says. "It's a very powerful ingredient, and it needs to be used in moderation."
At Vancouver restaurant Maenam, chef Angus An does keep MSG in his kitchen. Not for customers, though. It's for staff meals, because his cooks like it. For his menu, An builds umami in other ways, including fish sauce and soy sauce.
"We know our customers are a little scared of it," he says "Personally, I have nothing against it. It's brilliant when it gives you a subtle tasty effect. We can achieve that sensation without MSG, so we do it that way."
It seems peculiar that chefs will use it themselves, but not in their restaurants. Still, MSG is likely to retain its pariah status for a while yet, even as it makes food everywhere more delicious.
"The more I've read about it," Mosby says, "the more I see MSG as no more or less harmful than most of the other food additives that make up our contemporary industrial food system. And I eat those all the time."