Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Monosodium Glutamate- the Flavor Enhancing Killer?

Now MSG has gotten a terrible rap. Right up there with Aspartame, Hydrogenated oils, and other unnatural things that kill you. I myself have dabbled in avoidance of this powdery goodness. Speaking with a certain Josh earlier this week, I was telling him that I was thinking of writing a post on how MSG causes all sorts of health problems, very similar to high sodium intake (which as many have recently read leads to the death of nearly 100,000 Americans every year!). But he denied it, saying that some are going to have problems associated with it, while most are not.

Quickly going to Wikipedia when I came home, I seemed to be bested, "[after many studies], toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts". Now in no way can Wikipedia be wrong, but upon further examination there is a large group of people spreading an opposing sentiment, which I have concluded as misinformation on a grand scale.  is the best and most comprehensive website outlying medical study after medical study showing that free Glutamates cause all sorts of problems from ADHD to Autism. Don't believe everything that is written.

A little more history on and insight into what MSG is can give us a little more insight into why it's not so much of a problem.

MSG was discovered by this man, Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese physicist in 1903. Using what was the most popular soup flavorer, Kombu (a thick Kelp used in an earlier post), to create Dashi, the Japanese for centuries had been unknowingly creating free Glutamate. While our body was always processing glutamate, it had been a part of a process that was fairly natural and inside of our food, for example Tomatoes and Mushrooms both have high levels of glutamate. What Ikeda did next would revolutionize processed food for the next century and into our current situation. Isolating the element that made Kombu add so much flavor to his soup, Ikeda created MSG. He also created a word for how glutamate was flavoring food, Umami. This flavor did not overwhelm food, but seemed to enhance everything. Umami, generally translated as savory, is another flavor to go with sweet, salty, sour, spicy. His company quickly created a product translated as "essence of flavor," which is still produced and is creating about 1/3 of the worlds MSG, supplying much of Asia. The company quickly found that the flavor could be produced with wheat instead of Kombu, and at a much quicker pace.

MSG would come to America following WWII, along with many other Asian staples. One story goes that American cooks found that rations taken from the Japanese prisoners of war tasted far and away better than the American canned goods, and it was quickly found that this food essence was to blame.  Over the next 60 odd years, MSG has taken hold in American food. Due to a branding problem, MSG has other names, such as Glutamate, Malodextrin, Yeast Extract, Gelatin, and Sodium Caseinate to name a few. Without these products, all of our canned goods, soups, etc. would be bland, lose flavor much quicker, and would have a huge impact on the food industry.

To give the greatest example of why humans love glutamate we can look at breast milk. Glutamate is far and away the most abundant amino acid in the milk, and is ten times higher a content level than cow's milk. Glutamate is one half of the flavor of breast milk, being sweet and savory so kids will eat it!

MSG has its negatives, namely, you want to eat more because it tastes so good! Take a look at the facts, google msg myth, figure out what you want to do, just don't be fooled by MSG free!


  1. fascinating post! we've read about umami and the founding of MSG before, but didn't realize so many myths behind it. You definitely did your due diligence on this one!

  2. Im beginning to like this Moshe Polo, great information!

  3. Thanks Ravenous Couple and Jamie, its always nice to learn about what is going into our mouths.