Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has the common stigma of being this insidious food additive that makes otherwise unremarkable food delicious… but also somehow slowly kills you. For years since Chinese food became a takeout dietary staple, people have complained of feeling the effects of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome“, which vaguely includes headache, flushing, and sweating, after eating at Chinese restaurants.
It turns out there’s never actually been evidence linking MSG use to long-term negative effects, and the whole issue came from a spurious few isolated cases blown way out of proportion in the ’70s – as explained in this article about why MSG is not that bad.
MSG was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese scientist, and was used as a common flavor enhancer and preservative in the Western hemisphere since the 1950s. However, it was tagged as a toxin when a doctor complained in the New England Journal of Medicine that he always felt sick after eating American Chinese food and decided that the MSG commonly used to flavor it must be to blame. This report blew up and started a health scare, and MSG use was driven underground by a paranoid public which demanded that its takeout be MSG-free.
But most restaurants kept using at least a little bit to flavor food, and many still continue to.
The active ingredient in MSG is glutamate, a neurotransmitter responsible for the “fifth flavor”, umami, which translates most closely as savory. Foods like meat, shellfish, cheese, egg yolks, shiitake mushrooms, and nori seaweed in sushi all have naturally high umami levels, as do ketchup and ramen noodles.
Respectable scientists say that glutamate is “just like salt and sugar, it exists in nature, it tastes good at normal levels, but large amounts at high concentrations taste strange and aren’t that good for you.” So feeling sick after eating a lot of takeout is comparable to eating a lot of donuts or a lot of salt & vinegar potato chips in one sitting.
Goldfish crackers, Pringles, and Doritos all contain MSG, and MSG-related protein concentrates are found in everything from ice cream, canned tuna, canned soups, and pretty much anything cheese- or ranch-flavored. And of course, many chefs (especially in Asian cuisines) continue to use at least a little MSG flavoring.
So next time you’re eating an especially delicious Drunken Noodle at Typhoon or General Tso’s Chicken from any takeout place in America, know that it’s probably the MSG making the tastebuds benignly explode in your mouth.
[EDIT: Typhoon does display an “MSG-Free” sign, but that drunken noodle is almost unnaturally delicious (not that I’m complaining):
“Maggi sauce (there are various other Maggi products, not all of which contain MSG) is extremely popular in regions as far-flung as India, Mexico, the Philippines and the Ivory Coast. One of Thailand’s favorite late-night street foods, pad kee mao, or drunkard’s noodles, relies on its sweet-salty-meaty taste; the Malaysian version is called Maggi goreng.”]