When I was little, my mother gave me kangaroo medicine. Kangaroo medicine was this invisible stuff that came in an invisible bottle. If I scraped my knee or got a stomach ache, she would mime uncorking the bottle and splash an invisible drop onto my tongue.
And man, that stuff worked.
Kangaroo medicine made me feel great. It instantly dulled pain, relaxed nerves and dissolved depression; it was like morphine, Xanax and a shot of whiskey rolled into one. And sure, it did seem to be invisible, but who was I to judge?
Eventually, I learned to read and started to burn through science magazines on our bookshelf. Kangaroo medicine stopped working. Too bad, really, but I got to learn about all sorts of crazy things like black holes and hagfish instead. I grew up.
The first thing to know about MSG is that it is completely harmless. If you want to learn the whole story, read this great piece in the Guardian, but I’ll tell you the Coles Notes.
Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of proteins. Just like our taste buds test for the presence of sugar or salt, we also test for protein. Glutamate just happens to be the marker we use to tell if our food has protein in it.
There are two ways in which we know MSG is harmless, the first being scientific testing. Serious, double-blind studies of MSG have shown there are absolutely no ill effects. MSG does not cause headaches. It does not cause numbness. It does not cause asthma. People who think they are allergic to it are not actually allergic to it.
We also know that MSG harming humans would make no sense at all. Monosodium glutamate is no more than sodium and glutamic acid. If you can eat salt, you can eat sodium. If you can eat virtually any food with protein in it, you can eat glutamic acid. In fact, if you eat cheese, soy sauce, Marmite or miso, you already eat tons of concentrated glutamic acid. Ever wonder why grated parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast, if you grew up a hippie like me) tastes so good on everything? MSG, that’s why. Natural, natural MSG.
Then why does MSG have such a bad reputation? I once again refer you to the Guardian for the whole story but, in short, rumours, fear, and the awesomely powerful placebo effect. MSG just does not sound natural, and unnatural things feel bad for us.
The second thing to know about MSG is that it tastes good. Associations with a foul taste are almost universally due to excess by bad Chinese restaurants. Food tastes just as bad with too much salt, or anything else for that matter. Just as a touch of salt makes most savoury foods better, however, a moderate touch of MSG does wonders for all sorts of dishes.
Some people erroneously believe that MSG works by exciting the taste buds to bring out other flavours. While, like salt, it can raise the profile of a whole dish, MSG rather imparts its own flavour, umami. Umami is the rich, full taste of mushrooms, aged cheese or gravy.
Foodie purists will argue that umami is better delivered by flavour rich stock or mushrooms. This is absolutely true, but most of us lack a constant supply of high quality stock available for everyday cooking. And even so, a touch of MSG still often improves a dish.
If you still don’t believe me, go do some science. Go cook a soup or stew or tomato sauce for your spouse or roommates or children. Throw in half a teaspoon or so of MSG per four cups of liquid. Better yet, make two batches and only spike one. See what happens. Remember, this is science, so no telling your subjects what they are eating.
Go on. I’ll wait.
Undoubtedly, some of you are still unconvinced. You might grudgingly agree that MSG is harmless, and even that it makes food perform better in controlled trials.
But it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel virtuous. It doesn’t feel natural. Putting MSG in your food is embarrassing. It’s degrading. It doesn’t fit the rose-tinted Michael Pollan vision of natural, local, organic food that you would like to inhabit. It might be good, but it doesn’t feel good.
And that is exactly why you should go out and buy a bag of the stuff right now.
I propose the willingness to consume MSG as a wonderful test of a person’s commitment to science, and to reality. It demands of us all, do you really trust the scientific method, or is it just a convenient rhetorical trapping? Will you accept solid but uncomfortable scientific results, or will you pick and choose your conclusions? Does ideology or fact come first?
I will admit, the first time I bought a bag of MSG, I hesitated at the shelf for a minute in roiling self-doubt. It’s a chemical, my West Coast sensibilities screamed at me. You’re putting chemicals on your food. But in the end, there was only one side of that argument that made any sense. The white, powdery side.
The consumption of MSG is a beautiful coincidence of absolutely vindicating scientific evidence and deeply damning public perception. It’s also so frivolous — unlike, say, vaccines — that there is little pressure to take a position either way.
Kangaroo medicine is powerful stuff. It’s hard, with its heady liquor running through your veins, to believe that it is not real. It is also hard to believe that the very real headache you feel after too much cheap Chinese food is the product of indigestion and the mistaken perception that MSG causes headaches. Believing the placebo effect exists sometimes takes a genuine leap of faith.
But we can’t keep taking kangaroo medicine forever.