Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, is a form of one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids on earth, glutamic acid. It’s also one of the most misunderstood food products known to man. Read on to learn what MSG actually is, along with 10 things you most likely don’t know about this flavor enhancer that seriously gets no respect.
First of all, what exactly is monosodium glutamate (also called just sodium glutamate)? As a commercial product, it’s a white powder that looks similar to salt, and that is very popular in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisine. It doesn’t have an especially pleasing flavor on its own, but when added in the right quantity to various foods it lends them a rich, savory element, and balances and rounds off the flavors that are present, giving everything an umami-like kick.
In fact, MSG and umami, that “meaty” flavor that’s referred to as the “fifth taste” (along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty), go hand in hand. We taste umami through glutamate receptors in our brains, and MSG is simply an umami-producing element that’s been synthesized in powdered form. Humans have been kicking up their food with umami since ancient times (an umami-rich fermented fish sauce called garum was indispensable in ancient Roman cuisine; the Parmigiano-Reggiano Italians sprinkle over pasta is also a good source of umami), but nobody was able to isolate the specific element responsible until 1908, when Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, realized that a bowl of soup he was eating tasted much better after a piece of kombu (dried seaweed) was added to it. He called this taste umami, and set about extracting and chemically synthesizing it. Within a year, his invention was being commercially produced under the name Ajinomoto, or “essence of taste.” Today, Ajinomoto is responsible for the production of one-third of the 1.5 million tons of MSG consumed around the world every year. An American-made counterpart, Accent, also racks up huge annual sales.
So while MSG may get a bad rap, it’s simply a product that amplifies flavors that already exist in food, sending the same chemical messages to your brain that all-natural food would. In many ways, it’s just like salt: It’s already present in food, but adding some during the cooking process makes food taste better. Adding a sprinkle of MSG to your cooking is the same thing as adding fish sauce or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano: It boosts the umami factor. Read on to learn 10 facts about MSG, and the next time someone tells you that they don’t eat MSG because they think it will make them sick, remind them that it’s a naturally occurring flavor enhancer found in thousands of foods, and quote Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten: “If MSG is bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”
It’s Naturally Occurring in Lots of Foods
Glutamic acid, to which MSG is chemically identical, is a naturally occurring amino acid that’s found in many, many different foods and in the human body (we produce 40 grams of it ourselves every day; human milk contains 10 times as much glutamic acid as cow’s milk). Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese contains more free glutamate than any other natural food on the planet (1,200 milligrams per 100 grams), and Marmite and Vegemite (1,750 milligrams per 100 grams) contain more than any other manufactured food. Other foods that are high in natural glutamates are tomatoes, cured meats, mushrooms, soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and asparagus.
It Contains Only About One-Third the Sodium of Table Salt
MSG is 12 percent sodium, while table salt is 39 percent. For those looking to reduce their sodium intake, up to 40 percent of the salt used in food can be replaced by MSG with no perceived reduction of saltiness.