A popular seasoning and flavor enhancer, MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a food additive often used in Asian cooking, fast foods and commercially packaged food products. In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda was trying to isolate and replicate the taste of dashi after noticing that it had a unique taste not yet scientifically described. MSG was then created by Ikeda, once he discovered that seaweed had flavor-enhancing properties.
MSG is a white powder derived from an amino acid called glutamic acid. While glutamates occur naturally in some foods such as seaweed, parmesan cheese, sugar beets, tomatoes and mushrooms, MSG is a synthetic glutamate made by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. Glutamates are the source of the fifth taste quality called umami. Umami has its own distinctive taste and is described as earthy, meaty, and a pleasant, savory taste. Umami also has the property of enhancing other flavors by imparting depth and fullness to them. MSG is used to intensify and enhance umami flavors in sauces, broths, soups and many more foods.
Originally associated mainly with Asian cuisines, MSG is now used around the world to bring out the delicious flavor of foods. The additive can be used in a variety of dishes, from meat to fish to egg, as well as in gravies and soups. MSG helps to balance out the sweet and sour while mellowing the natural bitterness found in certain vegetables. MSG is also included in many commercially packaged food products as well as menu items at fast-food restaurants. Containing just one-third the sodium, MSG is also used as a partial replacement for salt. Because less salt will need to be added to items, using MSG is a good way to cut down on sodium in foods.
To use MSG in recipes, the crystalline white powder is added before or during the cooking process, at the same time as salt and pepper or other seasonings. When cooking, the amount of MSG added to a dish should be to personal preference, so it is best to begin with a small amount and increase as needed. Too much MSG will create an undesirable flavor and will not improve the taste of food that is poor in quality.
Over the years, MSG has become a controversial additive that has gained the reputation of being harmful to your health. While MSG safety requires more research, current evidence indicates that MSG is safe when consumed in moderate amounts.