It’s not an artificial chemical; it actually occurs naturally in beets, kelp, mushrooms, tomatoes, wheat and soy beans. It used to be extracted in small quantities from seaweed. Now, it is made commercially on a large scale from wheat or from fermenting sugar beet molasses.
Monosodium Glutamate is used as a seasoning, especially in Asian cooking. It has no real taste of its own, but it stimulates the taste buds in the human tongue so that the tongue tastes other flavours more vividly.
It is sold in North America to consumers under the brand name of “Accent” (owned by B&G foods as of 2005.) When listed as an ingredient on a package, owing to consumer suspicion of MSG, they have switched now to calling it ‘flavour enhancer 621’ or just “621”, or “E621” in Europe.
Monosodium Glutamate has received a lot of bad press.
Some people reported having allergic reactions to MSG. Many controlled studies, however, have failed to confirm that people who said they had reacted to MSG did in fact react to it, so MSG proponents say that it may have been something else in the food, such as nuts or shellfish.
It has been studied intensively, and governments haven’t yet found a reason to ban its use. The controversy started in the mid 1960s, and people are still suspicious of it 40 years later (2004). An FDA (Food and Drug Administration) Medical Bulletin, January 1996 (Volume 26 Number 1) says that after repeated trials and tests, they have to conclude that Monosodium Glutamate is safe. That being said, in June 2012, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service did issue a recall of Pork Shamomai Dumplings from one manufacturer because while an ingredient, chicken powder, was listed on the label, MSG present in the chicken powder was not declared. They listed it though as a Class III recall: “This is a situation where the use of the product will not cause adverse health consequences.”
Some Asian restaurateurs in North America are turning away from it, but not for health reasons: they feel that it over stimulates the tongue, soon numbing it, which kills wine sales in their restaurants because customers feel it’s not worth the money splurging for a bottle of wine with their meal. They hope that by leaving the MSG out they can come to enjoy the add-on alcohol sales which other restaurants do.
Literature & Lore
“Here’s a different stocking gift for that good cook on your Christmas list. Accent, the 99 per cent pure monosodium glutamate, has been learned with pepper and salt in a trio set of shakers for the kitchen work table. These are squat little jars with big bottoms, easy to grasp, made of clear glass, the name of each seasoner inscribed in red lettering to match the colorful red caps of plastic which fit over the shakers to keep the contents dust-free. The three shakers rest in a plastic rack that can be set flat on the table or stove or will hang from the wall.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. December 1950.
“In 1968 a Chinese-American physician wrote a rather light-hearted letter to The New England Journal of Medicine. He had experienced numbness, palpitations and weakness after eating in Chinese restaurants in the United States, and wondered whether the monosodium glutamate used by cooks here (and then rarely used by cooks in China) might be to blame. The consequences for the restaurant business, the food industry and American consumers were immediate and enormous. MSG, a common flavor enhancer and preservative used since the 1950s, was tagged as a toxin, removed from commercial baby food and generally driven underground by a new movement toward natural, whole foods. “It was a nightmare for my family,” said Jennifer Hsu, a graphic designer whose parents owned several Chinese restaurants in New York City in the 1970s. “Not because we used that much MSG — although of course we used some — but because it meant that Americans came into the restaurant with these suspicious, hostile feelings.” Even now, after “Chinese restaurant syndrome” has been thoroughly debunked (virtually all studies since then confirm that monosodium glutamate in normal concentrations has no effect on the overwhelming majority of people), the ingredient has a stigma that will not go away.” — Moskin, Julia. Yes, MSG, the Secret Behind the Savor. New York Times. 5 March 2008.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Recall Notification Report 039-2012. 11 June 2012.