MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring and non-essential amino acid. MSG is produced by synthesizing molasses or starch, and is most often used as an inexpensive flavor enhancer.
In 1908 the Japanese identified what is now considered the 5th primary taste,”unami” or savory. Prior to that, the known tastes were sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is the savory taste factor that MSG is known to stimulate. This flavor can be best described as full-bodied and earthy.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is a term that was coined in 1968 when groups of people started to experience strange symptoms, after eating in Chinese restaurants. These symptoms included headaches, heart palpitations, chest pains, shortness of breath, numbness or burning around the mouth, diarrhea and skin irritations. It was thought that the MSG, commonly used in Asian restaurants, was to blame. Because of this some Chinese restaurants now advertise that their dishes are” MSG free”.
Although most scientific evidence has failed to prove a connection between these symptoms and the consumption of MSG, it’s possible that some people are particularly sensitive to the chemical, and would benefit from avoiding it. Keep in mind that sensitivities can develop over time. Foods that at one time might not have caused any problems can suddenly bring on symptoms in susceptible people.
Mild reactions are sometimes treated with over-the-counter antihistamines, like Benadryl. However, more severe reactions can require an emergency room visit.
MSG is not only found in Asian cuisine, it is commonly used in many processed foods such as chips, soups, bullion cubes, salad dressings, flavor-enhanced meats and most fast foods.
MSG would be easier to avoid if it was always clearly labeled. That, unfortunately, is not usually the case. There are many ingredients that contain or are alternative names for MSG. Some of the most common include: monopotassium glutamate, glutamic acid, glutamate, vegetable protein extract, gelatin, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, senomyx, textured protein, yeast extract and autolyzed yeast.
Since MSG’s primary function is to stimulate the savory taste factor, there are many products available that can enhance the flavors of cooking and take the place of MSG:
- aged cheeses
- red wine
- sourdough bread
Some cooking techniques are better than others for bringing out the “unami” flavor in natural ingredients. Methods such as roasting, stewing and braising help to break down the naturally occurring glutamate in these foods which enhances the unami effect. Searing will also enhance the flavors of meats and fish. Any foods that are aged, fermented or cured tend to have a high unami factor.