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The origins of the MSG controversy

One of the most controversial topics, when talking about food and cooking, is MSG. It's on one hand presented as something so bad and unhealthy but on the other hand, there are enough people who defend MSG and say it works wonders. So where does this controversy come from and is MSG as bad as it is described by some?

What is MSG?

Before we start digging into the roots of the controversy, let's have a look at what MSG is. MSG is a mix of two substances. Sodium and Glutamate. Sodium is a chemical element that is also part of the more common seasoning salt. Glutamate is a very common amino acid that occurs naturally in many foods.

It is an amino acid that plays an important role in our bodies as one of the most important neurotransmitters. It sends signals to the brain and body and also helps with cognitive function, memory and learning.

Our body produces enough glutamate for its basic needs. But glutamate is also present in our diet. In foods like mushrooms, tomatoes or cheese you can taste glutamate ass a specific signature flavour.

That flavour is what got us to MSG in the first place.

History of MSG

The discovery of monosodium glutamate can be attributed to the Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda. As an associate professor who graduated in chemistry at the then Imperial University, in 1899 Ikeda went to Germany for two years to study at the laboratory of Professor Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald. At that time when Germany was seen as overtaking the UK as the biggest economic power and Japan was at its beginning of opening up to the western world, many privileged Japanese went to Germany for their studies.

That time was when Ikuda got in touch with foods like tomatoes, cheese and asparagus. He noticed that these foods had a flavour that went beyond the four known types: Sweetness, Sourness, Saltiness and Bitterness.

Back in Japan, in 1907, one day his wife made dashi using kelp. Ikeda noticed that the taste resembles the tomatoes and cheese he had eaten in Germany. So he started researching what constituents were in kelp and found that glutamic acid was a central element in the taste of dashi.

He used the dashi made of 38kg of dried kelp and extracted 30g of Monosodium L-Glutamate: MSG was born. He named the new flavour that was different to all the existing ones "umami". Experimenting further to find out ways to neutralize the glutamic acid, he found that adding sodium bicarbonate increased the umami levels.

On April 24 in 1908, Ikeda filed a patent for MSG and umami. His invention is now ranked among the "ten great inventions in Japan". Saburosuke Suzuki, then head of Suzuki Pharmaceutical Company, helped Ikeda make Monosodium L-Glutamate a product. He gave it the name "Ajinomoto". The word "Aji" is the Japanese word for taste or flavour, and "Moto" means "source", so the product was called "source of flavour"

This new source of flavour became quite popular and in the next few years, it did not only become available in Japan itself but also in China, Korea and via Chinese migrants even to the US. It was used in many different foods as people started to understand how MSG was an easy way to enhance the flavour of a dish.

The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

However, in 1968, an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine suddenly changed the way people perceived MSG. Titled "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" and written by Robert Ho Man Kwok, the article described side-effects the author had when he went to eat out at Chinese Restaurants, and he concluded that it might be due to the high sodium content, the Chinese cooking wine or MSG.

Although MSG was consumed worldwide since the 1930s without any problems, this letter triggered a wave of rumours that MSG was the cause for several side effects. The media picked up on this and started reporting about more and more cases of people visiting specifically Chinese restaurants and having any kind of symptoms. All of the blame was then put on MSG.

This got even worse when in 1969 John W. Olney did some experiments with rhesus monkeys and mice and concluded that MSG induced brain lesions. Even though many other studies failed to show the same results, people started to believe this and felt approved of the already widespread rumours.

He also told in an interview with the New York Times that MSG might have negative effects on pregnant women which meant the end of MSG at that time. However, in his experiments, he injected large doses of SG directly into pregnant mice. It doesn't have to be MSG to create negative effects like that on pregnant women. A large dose of anything directly injected is going to be harmful.

But the Anti-MSG movement was started. Companies announced that they didn't use MSG for their products and restaurants had signs saying "We don't use MSG here". A picture was drawn that only Chinese restaurants used MSG and that they are the only ones to be avoided.

Since then numerous studies and research papers have been published that not only show that MSG is harmless in reasonable amounts but also that the early research was faulty and that the circumstances from the experiments back in the days are not close to real-life conditions.

However, the MSG controversy is still there. And to be honest, the anti-Chinese narrative when it comes to MSG is also still there. Probably not as much as in the 70s but we must keep telling the story so that the rumours vanish at some point.

Many fast foods, chips and other foods items we love contain MSG because it is an easy way to enhance the flavour. It is a seasoning after all such as salt is. Of course, using it in big doses isn't going to be healthy but that with salt, too, and almost everything in life. It's not on MSG but you.