The New Yorker: An MSG Convert Visits the High Church of Umami



A few years ago, this affinity for MSG might have made me seem edgy or cool. Monosodium glutamate has been widespread in the American food supply since at least the nineteen-twenties, imported from China and Japan by major food-production companies like Heinz and Campbell’s, according to research done by Catherine Piccoli, a curator at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink. But a 1968 letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine raised the spectre of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” an illness allegedly brought on by the consumption of MSG, which was commonly used in American Chinese restaurants. Ever since, the chemical compound has been vilified—despite dozens of rigorous studies concluding that the ingredient is innocuous and the “syndrome” nonexistent. Certain scientists and culinarians have long agitated for MSG’s rehabilitation. In a 1999 essay for Vogue titled “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?,” the legendary food writer Jeffrey Steingarten gleefully ripped to shreds the standard litany of complaints and protests. But only in the past decade has MSG’s reputation truly turned a corner. The Times, Epicurious, and Bon Appétit have risen to its defense. The near-infallible food-science writer Harold McGee has regularly championed its use. At the 2012 MAD symposium, in Copenhagen, the chef David Chang gave a talk on the anti-Asian sentiment that underlies MSG aversion. “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?” Anthony Bourdain asked on a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown.” Then he gave the answer: “Racism.”


What a great line!


Mom’s secret for deeply flavored hamburgers (and steak) was MSG, first from the Accent product, then the generic. I think a lot of people used Accent in the '60s.

(For the Horde!) #4

Well, it is funny, and it may be true for few people in US, but it isn’t all of it. The reason is that even the Chinese and Japanese believe in MSG Syndrome, and many restaurants and food companies active push against using MSG.



The “MSG syndrome” is reaccuring hype even in those countries (even though it is not based on any scientific facts) but that doesn’t mean that in the western world it is mainly founded on racism against Asian countries (or has anybody complained about “MSG headaches” after visiting any Italian restaurants


In Asian countries, I have heard some people prefer not eating out because of the use of MSG in restaurants. So it is a wide belief that MSG is toxic, not only in the west.

I think MSG got such bad reputation also because it is always in use to with inferior ingredients to cut cost, and often associated with Asian restaurants which sell cheap food.

I have heard from a French food writer that some 2 stars restaurants in France, the chefs are still very attached with their bouillon cubes and is their secret ingredient.

Some people can detect if food is sprinkled with MSG or not? Not so obvious for me, unless overdose.

(Robert Sacilotto) #7

I shy away from synthetic MSG and any food additive made in a chemical factory. Any organic chemist is aware of side-chain reactions-the chemicals you don’t want are often not good for you. In synthesis, if the MSG is made from Acrylonitrile, I really don’t trust it; look up Acrylonitrile. It is very poisonous. So, you are trusting factories to produce pure MSG, with no accidental, other ingredients.

(Fermented MSG and) MSG containing products usually start with food, and there are plenty of those to choose from: Soy sauce, Miso, Katsuobushi, Kelp, Tomatoes, Anchovies, Tianjin Preserved vegetable (can be home-made), beef stock, Fish sauce, Fermented Black beans, etc. I’d rather add another level of flavor, along with naturally-occurring MSG, than trust a factory made, synthetic product. If one can confirm the MSG is, indeed made/isolated via fermentation, the primary method, that is likely to be safe.


You are aware that many drugs, commercial products etc. are made from potential toxic building blocks and that all of them have purity criteria and profiles which are approved by the FDA. There is no reason to believe that MSG products through a certain route is more toxic than others as long as the overall purity criteria and profile are within limits. And acylonitrile is mot a particular toxic building block

(For the Horde!) #9

Yeah, I have definitely know many people claim that they can taste MSG. I am not entire sure I can.
There have been numerous blind/double blind studies done which cannot prove there is a strong correlation between MSG and the physiological synonyms (headaches…etc).

I picked two information from a 1993 publication from Tarasoff and Kelly (Food and Chemical Toxicology)

As can be seen below, the number of incidents after consuming MSG isn’t too different than after consuming placebo


This one is particularly interesting… this is the intensity of their responses after consuming placebo/MSG


Of the the strongest responses (intensities of 6 and 7), these three incidents were all from subjects consuming placebo, not MSG.

This doesn’t prove MSG has no effect, but it certainly cannot establish MSG has any short term strong effect.

Personally, I support reducing the usage of MSG. However, factual information is important (not just based on gut feeling, or pure fear or pure love). Factually, there isn’t a strong indication that MSG is dangerous. A can of coke once a day may be more dangerous.

(Robert Sacilotto) #10

Honkman, I’ve studied organic and inorganic chemistry and am aware oil, benzene, plasticizers, etc. are used to make many products, for internal use or not. Controls on drugs are much stricter than food items, especially imported food items. Reporters have written about salt “Not for Human consumption”
( in Chinese), while reporting about a major Chinese pickle factory. Governments, especially in the US, have stripped monitoring ability by reducing spending for inspectors.

Hence, we have imported: the Asian Marmorated Stink Bug, Asian Lady Beetle, Soy Bean Stink bug, Asian Longhorn Beetle, Emerald Ash borer, Asian Tiger mosquito, all of which are banned entry and incredibly damaging pests. If the US can’t stop insects, do you think they take an even closer, more expensive look at all imported food’s purity? There’s no need to take risks or consume a chemical, under the assumption it’s pure. I don’t take drugs unless I must. My best friend worked for the FDA. I worked for the USDA until Reagan cut the budget 75%. We both were/are horrified at how few inspectors examine consumables. It’s one reason I grow as much as I can. “Approved by the FDA” no longer means effective monitoring; look at the number of contaminated food illnesses reported by the CDC.

Acrylonitrile is very toxic at low doses, According to Ullman’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. The LD50 for rats is 500 parts per million. Unless my math is off, that means 50% of a rat population dies at rates of 5 parts per thousand.

Thankfully, most MSG is now made by fermenting and isolating.

(For the Horde!) #11

The funny thing is adding MSG to foods which are naturally high in unami flavor like soy sauce and miso - which is not an uncommon practice.
If you are adding MSG or even yeast extract to make your soy sauce and miso… either your products aren’t very good to begin with, or your base customers have unusual high demand for unami.



I avoid MSG because of the taste, but I’m glad to read your review of scientific reasons to avoid it.


You can tell if a restaurant use MSG?

(Robert Sacilotto) #14

You’re probably right, that the ingredients are shabby or the process/manufacture takes shortcuts. The Rhee Bros. Aka Miso we get only lists: water, soybean, rice, salt, alcohol. Fermenting takes time, extracting takes more time. It’s kind of ironic to add a bland to flavorless flavor booster instead of a flavorful ingredient which contains the flavor booster. As a Biologist, I wonder if excess consumption of MSG can dull MSG receptors on the tongue, much the way excess capsaicin can permanently alter one’s sensitivity to it. I know my hands are much less sensitive to coring hot peppers without gloves, after decades of handling them. I still use gloves if coring/deseeding the super hots, Habanero, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, etc., but no longer need them for Aji amarillo, Jalapeños, etc.

Lack of sensitivity could explain why … “your base customers have unusual high demand for unami” (umami).


You do have to wonder why every MSG discussion is framed around Asian food … why aren’t we talking Doritos, KFC, chic-fil-a, cold cuts, or hot dog syndrome?


It probably depends on the amount. Sometimes I don’t notice it at all. Sometimes there is an unpleasant aftertaste that I don’t notice until I’ve left the restaurant. And sometimes it’s very prominent from the beginning.