MSG: Monosodium Glutmate and the Power of Folklore


MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is perhaps the most ostracized food ingredient alongside the much-maligned gluten. MSG’s origins are described in the Japan Patent Office site as:

Sodium Glutamate was invented in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University based on research for the purpose of commercializing as seasoning the component of kombu (a type of seaweed) that produces its good taste.
Taking a hint from the taste of kombu, Dr. Ikeda thought that a flavor other than sweet, sour, salty and spicy existed and proceeded to ascertain its original form. This flavor is called “umai” in Japanese and is best translated as “delicious.” His experiments resulted in the discovery that the “delicious” flavor of kombu comes from monosodium glutamate, and Dr. Ikeda invented a method of obtaining crystalline monosodium glutamate, the flavor in its purest form.

Commercial production of this monosodium glutamate was carried out by Saburosuke Suzuki, the founder of Ajinomoto Co., Inc., under request from Kikunae Ikeda. Dr. Ikeda’s invention, sold under the Ajinomoto name, has become popular as a seasoning not only in Japan, but worldwide.

In a recent article, Jon Sufrin wrote:

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.”

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.

As process professionals, we work to replace myth with fact and observation. The story of MSG is an example of how persistent is assumption and belief, however unfounded. When trying to make change happen, we should never underestimate the power of folklore.