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food In Praise of MSG, the Unfairly Maligned Kitchen MVP

Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda isolated glutamic acid, naturally present in seaweed, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese etc; he dubbed it the 5th taste: umami. His discovery, called MSG, was popular before concern arose about food additives in the 60's.

 A spoonful of MSG in the kitchen
“I always joke and say it’s part of the Chinese trinity: salt, sugar, MSG,” says Chef Calvin Eng.,Egasit Mullakhut/Shutterstock

My father is an American cook in that quintessential sense of boundlessness.

Although his parents, by way of Newark, New Jersey, are of Ukrainian Jewish stock, his repertoire ricochets across the map, encompassing golden brown veal cutlets with an anchovy-caper sauce, stir-fries of beef and broccoli, and lattice-crusted apple pie perked up with ginger juice. He is an entirely self-taught cook who developed his skills by leafing through cookbooks and cutting recipes out of newspapers.

One of my favorites in our family dinner rotation was what we called “pearl pork balls.” The name referred to the shaggy, pearlescent coat of sticky rice that formed around each small meatball after they were steamed until fluffy in bamboo baskets. He originally got the recipe out of Mrs. Ma’s Chinese Cookbook by Nancy Chih Ma, published in 1960. But over the years, he made it his own, swapping in ground pork and leek for the original beef and chopped onion, excising the mashed potato, opting for minced ginger instead of ginger juice, and adding vinegar to the seasoning of soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

One ingredient that he did keep was one you rarely see in American cookbooks these days: MSG, or monosodium glutamate. It was once a core seasoning ingredient in recipes but has since fallen out of favor.

The arc of MSG’s rise and fall goes a little like this: Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda was trying to figure out why his wife’s miso soup tasted so good. He isolated glutamic acid, which is naturally present in seaweed (used in miso soup), tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, meat, and more, and dubbed it the fifth taste: savory, meaty umami. In 1909, Ikeda debuted Ajinomoto, a company that produced MSG, and the flavor enhancer gained popularity in the U.S. before a fog of skepticism about the safety of food additives arose in the 1960s.

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In April 1968, The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from Chinese American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok, in which he claimed that he experienced a “strange syndrome” after eating at Chinese restaurants. That was later misinterpreted into hard research on MSG’s ill effects and spun up into a 1969 hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, rebranding the ingredient as controversial and unsafe. Chinese restaurant owners began erecting “NO MSG” signs in restaurant windows to ward off offensive questioning. (That the fabled effects of MSG were dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” despite the ingredient’s origin in Japan, fell squarely into the contemporary white American framework of perceiving Chinese things as cheap, dirty, and dangerous and Japanese ones as more expensive, sophisticated, and safe.)

But that was then.

For nearly 25 years now, the unfairly maligned MSG has been the subject of a robust rehabilitation campaign from the country’s most respected authorities on food. In the 1999 essay “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?” Vogue’s iconic food critic Jeffrey Steingarten searingly and hilariously skewered bunk health claims about the seasoning. His seminal myth-buster has since been followed by countless defenses in esteemed publications: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, and this magazine among them. Even the poll analysis site FiveThirtyEight has weighed in on the subject: “How MSG Got a Bad Rap: Flawed Science and Xenophobia.”

Some of the world’s greatest chefs have also been MSG cheerleaders. David Chang gave a TED-like talk on MSG and umami at The Mad Symposium, a brainy chef convention, in Denmark in 2012. Heston Blumenthal, of three-Michelin-star The Fat Duck outside London, has called the fearmongering about MSG “the biggest old wives’ tale.”

Yet pure MSG has never recovered its place in the vast majority of American pantries. Every year, Americans consume boatloads of MSG-laced foods in the form of Doritos, Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup, bouillon cubes, and much more. The average American adult, according to the Food and Drug Administration, consumes approximately 13 grams of glutamate each day from protein and an additional 0.55 grams of added MSG, but most still won’t pick up a bag of it to use in their home kitchen. That’s a fairly recent phenomenon.

Once upon a time, MSG was a staple in the American cupboard. “Salt That Tastes Like Meat” heralded a 1929 Atlantic City Sunday Press article, explaining that the ingredient was common in Japanese cooking and that Ajinomoto translated to “the element of taste.” Nineteen years later, a 1948 wire-service article predicted “Monosodium to Join Salt and Pepper.” Ajinomoto competitors like Ac’cent, Spice Islands, and General Mills put their own MSG products on the market. Subsequent articles claimed that its improvement of food was “startling” and that it “made flavors sing.” It was supposed to be “the third shaker.”

And for a time, it was. The earliest MSG recipe I could find was for “California’s Favorite Chateaubriand,” published in 1931 in American Cattle Producer by the American National Live Stock Association. But things really seemed to get going in the late 1940s, when newspapers began frequently featuring recipes — pork chop casserole, pollo con tocino, baked stuffed zucchini — all calling for a touch of MSG. As did cookbooks, including my personal favorite, Myra Waldo’s 1958 1001 Ways to Please a Husband, which incorporated MSG into scrambled shrimp. Recipe contests showcased plenty of winners with MSG, like a 1971 recipe for pâté-stuffed chicken breasts from a national chicken-cooking contest. It wasn’t just housewives who took to the flavor booster; it was an ingredient worthy of presidents. Dwight Eisenhower’s recipe for “old-fashioned” beef stew, now immortalized in the Eisenhower Presidential Library, called for prime round, carrots, onions, and MSG.

Then, the proliferation of misinformation about MSG began seeping into the cooking vernacular, and it was dubbed “optional,” “controversial,” or even unsafe to consume. The stigma has persisted, and today, many Americans still remain stubbornly closed off to MSG.

Calvin Eng, a 2022 F&W Best New Chef and coauthor of the forthcoming cookbook Salt, Sugar + MSG, says his family was among those scared off from using MSG. “It was taboo at home,” he says. Though a champion of it now, he didn’t start cooking with MSG until he began working in restaurants. “When I started working at Win Son, we ordered 100-pound barrels at a time,” he tells me. MSG has always featured in savory preparations, adding a little oomph to burgers, ribs, meatloaf, and stuffing. But now, chefs like Eng are figuring out exciting new ways to use it.

At his restaurant Bonnie’s in Brooklyn, Eng and his team tuck MSG into a wide range of dishes: meat and vegetables, of course, but also dessert components, like salted caramel, and their wildly popular MSG Martini — a better-calibrated dirty martini thought up by head bartender Channing Centeno. “A lot of people always ask why we put it on menus and so up front,” says Eng. “We’re proud to embrace it, to de-stigmatize it.”

Once he discovered its umami superpowers, there was no going back. The trick, he says, is not to use too much, which will impart a bitter flavor. Another MSG booster, Johnny Spero of Bar Spero in Washington, D.C., agrees, noting that the “smallest amount rounds out the flavor.”

While nutrition fads have come and gone, my father, never one to pay mind to flimsy authority, has kept on with his MSG-boosted Pearl Balls. So, too, has a certain segment of the American public. MSG recipes have persisted under the radar in newspapers and cookbooks, albeit in a much lower proportion. Long after the fear campaign of the late 1960s took hold, you could still find MSG in the pages of all sorts of cookbooks: the 1975 New York Times Weekend Cookbook, the 1980 American Dietetic Association Family Cookbook, the 1993 Black Family Reunion Cookbook, and the 2005 Food Network Favorites among them.

You could seek out recipes, like the ones in this magazine. Or you could do what many American home cooks have done for almost a century and try adding a pinch of the “magic ingredient,” as the newspapers once called it, here and there—in salad dressings, barbecue, roasts, pasta sauces, and more—and see what a flick of umami can do for a dish. “I always joke and say it’s part of the Chinese trinity: salt, sugar, MSG,” says Eng, who keeps a container of the stuff by the stove, just like salt and pepper, to sprinkle in as needed. Sometimes, MSG is the illusory solution to the something-is-missing affliction of certain recipes; other times, it rounds out and elevates the other flavors.

I will admit there is probably one health claim about MSG that is undeniably true. Used properly and in proportion, it will make your food taste so good, you will want to eat more.