MSG and Umami: Clearing the Confusion

Umami is one of the hottest buzzwords in the culinary scene. Also known as “savory,” it’s officially recognized as the fifth basic taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

MSG, on the other hand, is one of the most reviled words in cooking. It’s considered a hazardous additive, to the point that chefs feel compelled to stamp “NO MSG” onto their menus.

But what if I told you everything you knew about MSG was wrong? What if I told you that it wasn’t some synthetic toxin, but in fact goes hand in hand with umami?

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Kikunae Ikeda, courtesy of Ajinomoto

In 1907, a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was hard at work in his laboratory. His project? To find out just what made dashi, the master stock of classical Japanese cuisine, so delicious. Dashi puzzled Ikeda because of its simplicity: konbu seaweed and bonito fish flakes, simmered together in water. There was no meat in it, so it puzzled him that dashi had a meaty weight to its taste. But when examining the konbu, Ikeda found something.

If you’ve ever cooked with konbu, you know it’s usually covered in a white powder. Ikeda noticed it, too. Usually confused as salt from dried seawater, the white powder is actually nutrients produced by the seaweed. The powder is made from an amino acid, glutamic acid to be precise.

The glutamic acid was the origin of savory flavor, but Ikeda couldn’t just extract it. He needed something to pull it out, and provide a more substantial body. Salt was the perfect magnet. And when bound to a mineral ion—like salt—a glutamic acid is called a “glutamate.” And since Ikeda attached the glutamic acid to a salt (sodium) ion, he named it monosodium glutamate, or MSG for short.

Ikeda theorized that this savory, MSG-triggered experience was in fact a fifth taste, separate from sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. He named this fifth taste umami, after the Japanese word for “delicious,” umai (旨い). After his breakthrough, Ikeda patented MSG, its culinary use, and in 1909, founded his own company. He named it and the product Ajinomoto, after aji no moto, the Japanese phrase for “origin of flavor.”

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Here’s some konbu we carry at Asahi. That’s not salt or dust, that’s umami!

There you have it: MSG is just an amino acid attached to salt. Not so scary, is it?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes MSG as safe, and even goes far enough to say that claims of it being harmful are unfounded. “Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions,” as their website states.

Indeed, no study has consistently linked MSG to health complications. The idea that MSG is bad for you comes entirely from dishonest research and misinformation, such as study where mice were injected with MSG and exhibited brain damage and stunted growth. People jumped to conclusions that MSG was bad for you, and no one stopped to ask, “hey, maybe these awful problems are because they had salt injected into their bloodstream?” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

One more thing on glutamic acid:

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. If you’ve ever wondered why slow-cooked meats have a special, mouthwatering quality, it’s the glutamates at work. When dense cuts like pork shoulder or brisket are slowly cooked, their proteins dissolve away, releasing the glutamates inside. It takes hours for these proteins to break down though, so that’s why quick techniques like grilling or sauteing don’t have that comfort food oomph.

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Asahi Imports carries many soy sauce brands! Add a dash for a little umami!

Here at Asahi, you can find many ways to add umami to a dish!

  • Shiitake mushrooms are full of umami, and contain healthy vitamins and minerals that help your immune system. You can find both fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms at Asahi!
  • Soy sauce is my favorite way to add a little savoriness to a dish! You’ll find an assortment of soy sauce brands on our shelves, but my personal favorite is Yamasa’s usukuchi light soy sauce!
  • Edamame is a tasty snack because of how savory it is. You can remove the beans and add them to a curry, or you can steam the whole pods and serve them with salt! Peek in Asahi’s freezers if you’re looking for edamame!
  • Miso of all varieties packs a big punch when it comes to umami. If you aren’t too familiar with miso, check out the primer we wrote! I’m a huge fan of red miso, myself!
  • Seaweed such as konbu, hijiki, or shiokonbu are great ways to add a savory, uniquely Japanese flavor to a dish! Konbu is simmered in liquids, but hijiki or shiokonbu can be tossed into a quick stir fry.

Now that you know MSG isn’t so scary, why not come to Asahi Imports and pick up a few of these ingredients for your pantry? We hope to see you soon!

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Clifton Long Jr. is a contributing writer who loves Asahi Imports!
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