Monosodium Glutamate. I grew up in an era of terrifying tales about how MSG was a horrible scientifically engineered food additive that was killing me. Now I know the truth: this magic sodium salt of glutamic acid simply makes food taste better, and it doesn't hurt me.
More than a hundred years ago, food biochemist Kikunae Ikeda explored a pleasurable taste that was not sweet, salty, sour, or bitter, but uniquely savory. He named that flavor umami, which means 'pleasant taste' or 'savoriness' in Japanese.
In 1907 at the Tokyo Imperial University in Japan, Professor Ikeda was eating dinner with his family when he suddenly stopped. That day the dashi broth in his soup was more delicious than normal; after stirring a few times he realized the difference was the umami flavor from the addition of kombu. He understood that kombu was the secret to that flavor, and from that day on he studied the chemical composition of kelp.
In 1908, Ikeda extracted that flavor from kombu, or kelp, long used in traditional Japanese cuisine to add deliciousness. He believed that humans probably enjoy the taste of glutamate because it signals the presence of protein.
Ikeda identified crystals of glutamic acid in the form of pure sodium glutamate as the best and easiest way to enhance umami flavor in food preparation. Aj-no-moto, or "the essence of taste" was available for sale in Japan by 1909. Here in the United States you can commonly find it as Accent Food Flavoring. I keep a container in my cupboard.
In the age of anti-vaxxer hysteria and dinosaur denial, why are some people afraid of MSG like they are measles vaccines? Maybe it's just another situation where those people want to believe something is bad because that makes them feel good.
In 1969 there was a study that found injecting large amounts of MSG into newborn mice damaged brain development. Popular imagination latched on to news reports, and the claims of excitotoxicity, or overstimulation of nerves by chemical agents, made it sound like MSG would turn our children into a hyperactive mutant army. I just want to sprinkle some seasoned salt with MSG into the pot with with my pasta. I don't believe in "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." I love Chinese food with MSG.
Since that one early study that set off all the alarms, MSG has been proven time and again not to be harmful as a seasoning. In the very small amounts you'd actually want to use in your cooking, it has been proven safe. Some individuals report sensitivity to MSG, but the same studies linked in this blog post were unable to prove claimed sensitivities with double-blind tests. I do not doubt that some other people may experience side effects, but I do not experience any adverse effects. Besides, if the end result of me eating an awesome meal is that I also trip balls and the FDA says it's safe? Well, you know.
You can literally sprinkle a little bit of MSG on just about anything you are eating except sweet foods and it'll taste magically better. Sprinkle it in the pot when cooking pasta. Throw a bit in the pan when sautéing mushrooms. Add it to your steak seasoning or rub. Mix it into your dressings, add it to sauces, and it even helps make a Bloody Mary better.
Enjoy MSG. I sure do.
Accent Flavour Enhancer, via Amazon
Vintage Accent Tin, pictured above via Easy