What is MSG? Here’s a brief history, and how to use it in drinks

What is MSG? It’s a flavour enhancer, and one that has many detractors and which is subject to some gross misinformation — even racism. MSG is said to cause Chinese Restaurant Syndrome — something the late Anthony Bourdain dismissed on his show Parts Unknown in 2016: “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?” he said. “Racism.”

Let’s sprinkle some MSG out there then and get to know it a little better.

What is MSG?

MSG is short for monosodium glutamate, which is defined by the US Food & Drug Administration as “the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid.” I.e., it is sodium bonded with glutamates. Glutamates occur naturally in our bodies and are found in a wide variety of foods: parmesan and roquefort cheeses have some of the highest naturally-occurring concentrations of the stuff (hence why they are so damn delicious).

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And this is the thing: MSG is umami, and umami — in case you’re new to this — is one of the identifiable tastes that humans perceive (the others being salt, sweet, acid, and bitterness).

Indeed, the term umami was coined in 1908, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that a wide variety of foods had a common taste to them, which he proved to be monosodium glutamate.

He went on to co-found the first company to commercially make MSG, Ajinomoto, a company which today is the world’s largest producer of MSG.

You’ll find that a number of fermented foods are high in these glutamic acids — stuff like the aforementioned cheeses, dry-aged meat, soy sauce too.

How did it get this rep?

So how did MSG — this compound of sodium and glutamate, which occurs naturally by the way — how did it become so maligned?

There’s evidence that American food giants like Heinz were using the stuff to make their processed products tastier as far back as 1920.

Then in 1968, a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine changed everything.

Written by a doctor called Robert Ho Man Kwok, he wrote that for “several years since I have been in this country, I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant.” He described some general heart palpitation, weakness, and “numbness in the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back.”

He ended his letter with a plea to doctors to further study this area, but not before he guessed at a few potential causes of what he was experiencing, one of which was thus: “it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants.”

The thing snowballed from there. Some other doctors would write letters backing up the so-called syndrome, others would say it was a crock. The US FDA in the 1990s thoroughly tested MSG and found that it was completely safe.

They did however warn that if you ate three grams of MSG without food — just snacking away one the stuff — it can lead to “short-term, transient, and generally mild symptoms, such as headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness,” should you be a sensitive individual. However, they write, “a typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. Consuming more than 3 grams of MSG without food at one time is unlikely.”

How is it made?

Ikeda first found MSG when he extracted it from dashi, the ancient Japanese broth made using kombu (otherwise known as seaweed). These days, however, the FDA says that much commercial production MSG is done buy fermenting “starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses,” in a fermentation process that “is similar to that used to make yogurt, vinegar and wine.”

You know what other industry likes making fermented stuff? The bar industry.

Using MSG in drinks

Can you use MSG in drinks, then? Of course you can. Indeed, if you’re fond of knocking back a Bloody Mary then that might be down to the tomato juice; tomato is one of the foods that is rich in glutamates, after all.

At Bar Goto in New York, their take on the Bloody Mary employs the umami rich seaweed broth, dashi, as an ingredient to maximise flavour on the palate.

You can buy granulated MSG from Asian grocery stores and take things from there.

Burrow Bar’s Chau Tran employs an MSG solution — it being wonderfully soluble in water — to use in her take on a savoury Martini, the Pho-tini (you can grab the recipe for the cocktail here).

The result? It gives your cocktails a little bit of extra oomph, but it’s something you ought to use sparingly. In that way, it’s similar to the idea of using a very small amount of salt in your drinks — they both help to make flavours pop that little bit more, but you don’t want to notice them.

Just make sure you call it out on your menu, as some guests may be wary of it.

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