Tourist foodie spots up and down Southeast Asia are likely to display signs in their restaurants that state “No Added MSG”. Such labels are meant to ease the discerning diner that the commonly used, yet controversial flavour enhancer is nowhere to be seen in their kitchens. After all, MSG has been blamed for various health problems, such as severe headaches and obesity. But is it really that bad for you?
To give MSG its official name, monosodium glutamate is simply the monosodium salt of an amino acid called glutamate. Glutamic acid is a substance inherently found in various foods such as mushrooms, tomatoes or even parmesan. In 1908 a Japanese chemistry professor called Kikunae Ikeda was able to extract and isolate the glutamate from seaweed, an ingredient that had been used for centuries by cooks to make food taste better.
A year later, the substance was patented and marketed under the trade name Ajinomoto, a brand still popular to this day. Nowadays, instead of extracting it from seaweed broth, MSG is produced from the fermentation of sugar cane, starch or sugar beets, a process similar to that of making yogurt or vinegar. Upon research, Ikeda discovered what he claimed to be a fifth taste, which he later dubbed as “umami”. He suggested that umami was distinct from the other four known primary tastes: salty, sweet, bitter and sour.
Alone, MSG has no discernible taste, but when added to other foods such as stews, soups or snacks, it takes on an almost sweet-savoury punch, one found in protein-rich foods such as meat or cheese. In its essence, MSG is simply a flavour enhancer. This is why you’ll find the ingredient (possibly in other abbreviated forms) in canned goods or packeted crisps.
It was in fact a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 that drastically changed the public’s perception of MSG, when Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese immigrant living in the US described a series of symptoms such as numbness at the back of the neck, heart palpitations and general weakness after eating at an American Chinese restaurant. Since then, no conclusive evidence has been found to support the syndrome. Numerous studies conducted with people who identified themselves as sensitive to MSG found no difference between those taking placebos or real MSG. The only cases of sensitivity found were in consuming the glutamate in extremely high doses in its own – and found no dangers when eating it when accompanied by food.
In 2017, amidst still rising concerns over MSG, Aaron Carrol, professor of Pediatrics and Indiana University of Medicine wrote an article addressing the ungrounded panic when it comes to MSG.
“Many people still wrongly believe that MSG is poison. We certainly don’t need MSG in our diet, but we also don’t need to waste effort avoiding it. Our aversion to it shows how susceptible we are to misinterpreting scientific research and how slow we are to update our thinking when better research becomes available. There’s no evidence that people suffer disproportionately from the afflictions — now ranging from headaches to asthma — that MSG-averse cultures commonly associate with this ingredient.”
Israeli American chef, Shahar Lubin, has cooked in both the US and later in Vietnam for a collective period of over 20 years, and has noticed a shift in the way food is understood, especially amongst those who are preparing it. “In recent years chefs have started questioning things more and there is more willingness to investigate the science behind cooking,” Lubin explained. “That fear of MSG has dropped since I started working in kitchens.”
That’s not to say the fear has been eradicated nor does that mean chefs are happy to openly condone the use of MSG – the panic over the ingredient is still very much a big anxiety for customers. Especially in Vietnam where concerns have been raised regarding food sourcing.
Owner of Spicy Pho restaurant, Tran Van Nhat, claims that despite the concerns, he believes that almost every Vietnamese restaurant will use MSG to some varying degree. “It is a normal thing to use here – it’s just another ingredient. The way we use it is similar to how we use fish sauce,” said Tran. “And it’s not just restaurants, it’s also very common for families to have in their kitchens. It’s always foreigners that will ask to not have MSG in their food, never locals.”
Across Asia, MSG can be found in up to 90% percent of foods such as fish sauce, soy sauce, canned food or dried noodles – which is probably why the vast majority of the Vietnamese population are unfazed by adding it to their meals. It is not uncommon to be presented with a dish in Vietnam accompanied by limes, chilli and a mixture of MSG and salt as an accompanying seasoning for customers to add that extra umami oomph.
If MSG was so terrible, millions of people would get sick from eating it every single day, so if you’re still worried about imaginary heart palpitations, take a leaf out of the Vietnamese’s book, and take MSG with a pinch of salt (literally).