Yesterday Barbara of the award-winning food blog Tigers and Strawberries did something in her kitchen that might surprise a lot of people. She opened a bottle of Aji-no-moto (MSG) and sprinkled the tiniest bit into some pork noodle soup she was serving her family. And then, as if that wasn't shocking enough, she confessed on her food blog that she had used MSG. Deliberately. With no harmful effects. And she said it did make the food taste better. In the comments Barbara later clarified that she has no plans to start using MSG regularly to flavor her food, but it did get me to to thinking.
MSG is the common abbreviation for Monosodium Glutamate, a sodium salt of glutamic acid, commonly used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese food, and added to nearly all processed foods and many other foods in the U.S. and other countries. The widespread use of MSG as a food additive is due to the fact that it simulates umami, one of the five basic tastes which the human tongue can recognize and appreciate. Specifically, umami is the taste associated with savoriness, as found in foods such as meat, cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms. These foods contain naturally formed glutamates, which is what gives them that savory taste.
Some people seem to have a sensitivity to MSG, sometimes called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, but the FDA has repeatedly found it to be safe. In his much-loved book, On Food and Cooking (page 342), famous food scientist Harold McGee says "Many studies later, toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts." This is confirmed by a long list of studies linked to in the Wikipedia article on Monosodium Glutamate.
I've personally never had any bad effects from eating foods that contain MSG, and I certainly ate enough Cheetos in my college days. Still it's not something I've used intentionally for many years, and Barbara's brave admission that she used it made me curious. First I read her two previous posts, Let's Talk about MSG and More on MSG and Glutamates. Then I wondered what other bloggers had said on the subject.
At Just Hungry, Maki says she considers Aji-no-moto as an optional ingredient in her Japanese cooking, and she is limiting her use of Dashi Powder (which contains MSG) to be on the safe side.
The blog at BlogSoop points out that there seems to be a lot of evidence which support the claims that MSG is safe for most people.
Writing as a guest poster on Megnut, Michael Ruhlman concludes that MSG has taken a bad rap but feels that natural foods are the best source of umami.
Quite honestly I was surprised not to find more discussion of MSG on blogs I was familiar with. Is the newly-proclaimed safety of MSG simply old news and I didn't get the memo? What's your opinion about this ingredient that's so commonly used in nearly all commercially prepared food?
Blogher Food Editor Kalyn Denny also writes at Kalyn's Kitchen.
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