Monosodium glutamate (MSG), may not have the best reputation, but there is a reason why it’s found in so many foods and condiments – it enhances the flavor of just about everything. But what exactly is MSG, where did it come from, and is it actually bad for you?
Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid, and glutamates are what give food an “umami” or “savory” flavor. High levels of glutamates are naturally found in seaweed, corn, tomatoes, hard cheese, mushrooms, and many other foods known for having an umami flavor. Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid.
While glutamic acid was discovered in 1866 by German chemist Karl Heinrich Ritthausen, MSG was first created in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese biochemist. Ikeda wanted to understand why dashi, which is made from kombu (a type of kelp) and katsuoboshi, had such a strong savory flavor that couldn’t be classified as sweet, salty, bitter, or sour. This taste is now known as “umami.” Ikeda sought to isolate this flavor from kombu, which has some of the highest levels of glutamates of any food. He studied the taste properties of different glutamate salts: calcium, potassium, ammonium, and magnesium glutamate. While all of these salts carried the umami flavor, sodium glutamate tasted the best and was the easiest to crystallize. Ikeda named this product “monosodium glutamate” and submitted a patent to produce it. The Suzuki brothers began commercial production of MSG in 1909 as Aji-no-moto, which translates to “essence of taste.”
While MSG is generally recognized as safe around the world, there is a popular belief, especially in North America, that MSG causes headaches and other discomforts. This is known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome” as North American Chinese restaurants often use a lot of MSG. However, double-blind tests have failed to find strong evidence of this reaction. One of the last studies on MSG that gained attention was published in 2011, claiming a link between MSG and obesity, though those results have also been questioned. The general scientific consensus now seems to be that, only in large doses and on an empty stomach, can MSG temporarily affect a subset of the population. So while MSG is by no means a health food, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that it’s not safe to ingest, especially in moderate quantities.