MSG finding its way back to restaurant menus

Naturally occuring MSG offers the umami taste that is rich, savoury and satisfying.
MSG is making a return to restaurant menus. (Khalil Akhtar)
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, occupies an odd space in the North American culinary consciousness.

Despite the fact MSG is found in countless convenience food products and snack foods in the supermarket - often under a number of different names - the ingredient remains somewhat maligned.

In Canada, the product is widely used even when it's not explicitly listed on the label. Instead, ingredients like hydrolyzed plant protein, autolyzed yeast or even natural flavour imply MSG content. But according to Health Canada, products sold here can't be labelled MSG-free unless food producers can show they contain no naturally occuring glutamic acid.

David Chang is one of the most influential young chefs in the United States, who has championed accessibility, informality and above all, flavour, in his growing Momofuku restaurant empire. As he told a symposium for chefs in 2012, MSG is part of that sensibility.

"You eat a bag of Doritos, why is it delicious? Not the cheesy flavour," Chang says. "It's the MSG. That's why everyone is so enamoured with Asian flavours. It has that punch that we don't find in other foods."

To be fair, while Chang defends MSG as a seasoning, in his cooking he harnesses it through ingredients that naturally contain it, rather than adding the synthesized version.

Patrick Lynch's simmering ramen broth with pork bones and mushrooms is umami-rich because of the naturally occurring MSG. (Khalil Akhtar)
That list of MSG-rich foods is long because glutamic acid is present in countless fermented soy and bean products in Asian cuisines. Mushrooms have plenty, as does cheese, Thai fish sauce, tomatoes, roasted meat, anchovies and cashew nuts.

That disparate list of foods has one thing in common: umami, otherwise known as the fifth taste. It fits in along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter and it was isolated and described by a chemist in Japan a century ago. Umami's savoury, rich, satisfying taste is, chemically speaking, MSG.

Patrick Lynch runs an Asian street food counter in Victoria, British Columbia, a place inspired, in part, by the David Chang philosophy. He doesn't use MSG as an ingredient -- instead, like Chang, he coaxes umami flavours out of certain foods. But he does point out that MSG's much maligned reputation is undeserved and sometimes culturally insensitive.

"It's kind of a racist thing, it's like, 'Oh I can't eat Chinese food.' Everyone is assuming that the Chinese are doing some evil disservice to the public by loading their food with MSG."

Despite decades worth of anecdotal reports, the scientific community remains split on the true health effects of MSG, with the majority agreeing glutamic acid is perfectly safe for most people to consume.


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