A couple of months ago, I wrote an essay in defence of monosodium glutamate. I argued that MSG is both harmless and useful, and that the persistent fear of MSG is a powerful representation of the grip the placebo effect has on our lives.
Since writing, I have had many great conversations about MSG with friends, family, and angry people on Facebook. Some raised concerns about MSG, and told me why they were not persuaded. Below, I have attempted to collate some of the most common questions, and give answer to them.
Isn’t there a difference between natural glutamate and synthetic MSG?
Most of our sources of umami — the rich, meaty flavour that MSG provides — are fermented foods. That’s why grating a bit of cheese over nearly anything makes it taste delicious, and why soy sauce livens up even the most drab steamed vegetables.
Taste a raw soybean or fresh cheese curds and, while both can be tasty, neither contains much of that rich flavour. It isn’t until yeast, bacteria or mould do their work that the flavour really appears. That’s why only a tiny sprinkling of an old, hard cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano can give life to a pasta sauce.
It would be nice to imagine that these natural, ancient processes are purer and healthier than the production of crystalline, chemical MSG. But they are not; they are exactly the same.
Early MSG was produced laboriously from seaweed, replaced briefly by an awkward method involving hydrolyzation of vegetable protein. By 1956, however, a method had been developed to produce MSG efficiently in the same way as that in cheese and soy sauce: microorganisms. Today, virtually all MSG is produced by feeding sugar, oxygen and ammonia to the bacterium Corynebacterium glutamicum. The result? Delicious, natural, bacteria poop: MSG.
The nice thing about chemicals is that they are what they are. Worms are complicated. Mushrooms are complicated. Who knows what might be in there — medicine or poison, delicious or disgusting. But glutamate? Glutamate is glutamate. It all looks the same, down to the last atom. You can even draw a picture of it.
Maybe pure MSG is fine, but what about chemical impurities in the product?
One of my favourite foods as a kid, growing up in a hippie town in the BC interior, was nutritional yeast. This is the bright yellow, flakey stuff that is sold in bins in Whole Foods — not the live yeast you use to make bread. I would sprinkle it over nearly anything, followed by a dash of soy sauce. My girlfriend, who grew up in the same town, still loves to sprinkle the stuff over cheese crackers.
Why is nutritional yeast — essentially dead, flaked yeast — so delicious? You guessed it: it’s packed full of glutamate. Nutritional yeast is just the MSG of natural food stores, MSG with all of the byproducts left in.
To produce pure MSG, manufacturers take a broth of microorganisms, centrifuge out the cells, and concentrate the remaining liquid until the MSG crystallizes out. Thus, even if there were any “byproducts” in the MSG, they would simply be the remains of harmless bacteria.
Just because sodium and glutamate are both harmless doesn’t mean they are harmless in combination.
Chemistry is a funny science. Take harmless old carbon and harmless old nitrogen, triple bond them, and suddenly you have deadly cyanide. Perhaps sodium and glutamate, in combination, are just as devious.
But alas no, sodium glutamate is a salt. As you’ll remember from high school chemistry, salts are ionically bonded. When they’re put in water, they usually pop apart and hang around as positively and negatively charged ions.
That’s exactly what MSG does; in fact, glutamate wouldn’t taste good if it didn’t. It’s possible, of course, that two ions could interact dangerously, but we already know that adding salt (sodium) to glutamate isn’t dangerous. There is no difference between eating MSG, in other words, and putting salt on a tomato.
But I’m sure that I’ve felt sick after eating too much MSG.
I once ate too many hamantaschen, a festive Jewish pastry, and then got terribly ill. To this day, the smell of baked sesame paste still makes me a little queasy. That doesn’t mean hamantaschen are bad for me, or for anyone.
We feel sick for all sorts of reasons, many psychological. Too much MSG tastes bad, just like too much salt or too much vinegar. Things that taste bad can make us feel sick. Luckily, we have double-blind studies to help us figure out what is going on. And those studies have told us, again and again, that MSG is harmless.
Either way, I still feel weird about adding chemicals to my food.
Almost everyone adds chemicals to their food. Salt is a chemical. Sugar is a chemical. Baking soda is chemical. Chemicals are not our enemies; dangerous chemicals are our enemies.
The tragic irony to all of this is that Kikunae Ikeda, the discoverer of MSG, thought he was bringing something wonderful into the world. He correctly saw MSG as one of the few things we can add to food that improves flavour without any real risk to health, unlike sugar, salt or fat. His discovery, however, has been painted as a dangerous, unhealthy, unnatural chemical additive.
In an age of serious, genuine threats to human health, let’s find it in our hearts to forgive one helpful little molecule that never did us any harm.