The Stirring of Controversy Behind MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been controversial for decades, beginning with a simple letter in 1968 that sparked global panic. This letter, penned by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, detailed symptoms he attributed to MSG after dining in a Chinese restaurant.

A storm of biased science, sensationalist journalism, and international concern followed. Yet, at its core, MSG is a blend of sodium and glutamate, essential components of our diet.

The Discovery of MSG & Umami

In 1908, Japanese chemist Dr. Ikeda Kikunae made a groundbreaking discovery while investigating the unique savory taste of a noodle broth. He identified glutamate as the molecule responsible for this flavor, which he named “umami,” translating to a “pleasant, savory taste.”

Umami is now recognized as one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. 

Ikeda’s invention of MSG was a culinary revolution, creating a shortcut to enhance the umami flavor in food by isolating glutamate and combining it with sodium. This innovation made MSG a staple in kitchens across Asia by the 1930s and eventually a global commercial food additive.1

The Stirring of Controversy

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The publication of Dr. Kwok’s letter not only ignited immediate outrage but also called for a scientific inquiry into MSG, an additive whose health impacts were then largely unknown. This reaction was not entirely unfounded, given the absence of thorough toxicity testing.

However, the backlash was heavily influenced by prejudices against Asian culinary practices, branded by some Americans as exotic or dangerous. This stigma, along with racially biased journalism, propelled the notion that Chinese restaurants and their use of MSG were to be avoided, a concept popularly referred to as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”2

The Science & Myths

Subsequent research into MSG produced mixed results, often sensationalized by the media.

Early studies claiming severe health impacts from MSG, such as brain damage in mice from injections, were misleading and not reflective of dietary MSG consumption.

Similarly, conditions like Alzheimer’s, initially linked to glutamate, were found to result from internal imbalances rather than dietary intake.

Despite these misconceptions, the stigma around MSG persisted, fueled by media sensationalism and medical misunderstanding.

The Shift In Perspective

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Image Credit: joloei/Shutterstock.

Fortunately, the narrative around MSG has evolved significantly. Current research highlights glutamate’s critical role in metabolism, with some scientists advocating for MSG as a healthier alternative to traditional seasonings high in fat and sodium.

While there are ongoing investigations into MSG’s relationship with conditions like obesity and its potential to cause mild adverse reactions in some individuals, the consensus is that, in moderation, MSG is a safe and tasty addition to food.

MSG In Modern Cuisine

Today, MSG’s reputation is being rehabilitated as chefs and food scientists recognize its value in enhancing flavor without the health drawbacks of excessive salt or fat. The unique umami taste it provides is celebrated for elevating dishes and contributing to a rich and satisfying culinary experience.

The discussion around MSG is shifting from fear and avoidance to appreciating its role in global cuisine. From its discovery to the controversy and eventual scientific vindication, MSG’s journey reflects broader themes of innovation, misunderstanding, and acceptance.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.