I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when every reputable Asian restaurant hung a sign reading “NO MSG.”
As a result, I came to think of the flavor additive as something sinister. Monosodium glutamate sounded like a disease or a syndrome. And nobody wanted to eat that.
While America spurned MSG in “Asian food,” the nation ate Doritos at barbeques and “buttered” popcorn at the movies. No Reagan-era refrigerator passed inspection without a green tube of Kraft Parmesan cheese and a bottle of Heinz ketchup sitting on the interior shelf. Few worried about the MSG in these products. The only thing that worried us, it seems, was the thought of some Chinese guy slipping it into our take-out.
My fear of the flavor additive followed me to Vietnam, until last November, when Lucky Peach – a new food magazine published in San Francisco – ran a piece by food scientist Harold McGee largely debunking concerns about MSG.
McGee revealed that speculation on the ill effects of MSG began in April of 1968 when a Dr. Kwok wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine describing a series of symptoms, including stiff neck, heart palpitations and general weakness, that he experienced after eating at Northern Chinese restaurants in Virginia. The doctor asked if “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” could be associated with the use of MSG, sodium content or the use of cooking wine.
Forty-four years later, MSG and headaches still haven’t been linked. “To date, all double-blind studies attempting to find MSG sensitivity have come up negative,” wrote Anna Katherine Mansfield, a food scientist at Cornell University, in an email.
“I think it gave people an excuse to not like Chinese food,” said Peter Meehan, the editor of Lucky Peach, in a subsequent radio interview. “I think there’s a vaguely racist aspect to the idea of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
MSG is a mixture of salt and glutemic acid, an amino acid that occurs naturally in many types of foods. It came into commercial use after 1908, when a Japanese scientist and future millionaire named Kinude Ikeda boiled down 40 kilograms of Konbu seaweed and came out with 30 grams of MSG in the form of brown crystals.
Japanese cooks had seasoned their broths with Konbu for centuries and Ikeda had literally crystallized the flavor-enhancing property of the plant – resulting in a chemical compound that made savory things taste stronger and richer.
The following year, Ikeda extracted glutamate from wheat, stabilized it with salt and marketed under the brand Ajinomoto, meaning “essence of flavor.” In the ensuing years, Japanese people would sprinkle MSG powder onto their food like table salt and remember Ikeda as the hero who discovered the key to unlocking the tongue’s fifth taste – umami (deliciousness). Ajinomoto is still the world’s largest manufacturer, though MSG is now made through chemical synthesis or the bacterial fermentation of anything from cassava to the slurry left over from sugar beet processing.
MSG became ubiquitous in American food, but the health concerns never wholly died, and in some quarters intensified into a panic. One dubious American neurosurgeon went so far as to label MSG an “excitotoxin” – a chemical that supposedly kills your brain cells by “exciting them to death.” He also sells a line of pills designed to “repair” your brain for $51.
MSG didn’t really take off in China until the 1960’s, as a base for vegan stocks. According to Erica Peters, author of “Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century,” it was the French, not the Chinese, who brought MSG to Vietnam in the form of Maggi – a Swiss sauce derived from wheat gluten.
Honest fish sauce is made from salt and anchovies, a fish rich in glutamate. So it’s hardly surprising that Vietnam fell in love with a product that isolated the key element of its favorite condiment.
“MSG is just an artificial way of isolating the natural umami flavor which makes so many things taste savory and delicious,” Peters said in an email. Long prior to the arrival of bot ngot (sweet powder, as MSG crystals are known), “the Vietnamese already had access to umami flavor from soy sauces, nuoc mam, seaweed and mushroom broths.”
Given its appeal, it’s also not surprising that MSG had its critics here, too. While growing up in Vietnam, American food blogger and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen recalls overhearing gossip about who was “cheating” by adding too much MSG to her food.
Nguyen – who does not cook with MSG – claims that a significant portion of Vietnamese do not believe that a genuine bowl of pho is possible without it. She doesn’t believe that MSG crystals will melt your brain, but prefers the naturally-occurring glutamate found in fish sauce, seaweed and tomatoes.
While I share Nguyen’s aversion to package flavor, I know that it’s not grounded in science.
“Glutamate is a specific chemical, and it is the identical molecule whether it’s in a tomato or a plastic bag of white crystals,” wrote McGee, the author of the Lucky Peach article, in a follow-up email.
There may be legitimate reasons to avoid MSG, such as the fact that industrial producers have shamelessly polluted Vietnam’s rivers. And you don’t want to overdo it – even the good people at Ajinomoto admit that it’s possible to eat too much MSG.
But, chances are, if you’re getting headaches, sore neck and dry mouth after a bowl of noodles, you probably just ate too much salt.
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