MSG. Who is He?


Yum. Just hearing those three letters makes me salivate. This goes to clear up questions, concerns, and also give a helping hand to a great friend of, well, everybody.

What is MSG?

To answer that question we have to go back to structure. Food structure. Many foods, especially animal proteins, are packed with just that: proteins. I know you’ve heard the words “amino acids” thrown around as well. These are the building blocks of proteins; the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the protein, per se. And the Quarks? Those are peptides. Peptides are small chains of amino acids, and therefore essential structural parts of proteins.  There exist a series of peptides that have quite a strange effect on our senses.

When that patty hits the grill, those mushrooms sizzle in the pan, and Parmigiano Reggiano is grated on your pasta, that smell, that luscious, sexy, decadent smell is MSG. Thats a lie, but it kind of is. A very common peptide, called glutamate, or glutamic acid is the culprit of causing you to completely ignore everything in your surrounding and focus on that hissing burger.  For centuries the Japanese have described a series of savory tastes as “Umami” (literally translating to delicious.) These are the tastes found in mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, meats, seaweeds, etc. Those hearty tastes are because of glutamic acid. For now, can we all agree that glutamic acids are a good thing? In fact there is a belief that these peptides have these effects on our senses to attract us to highly nutritious foods.

Now, ask again. What is MSG?

MSG stands for Monosodium Glutamate. Back in the early 20th century, a Japanese scientist (of course), trying to figure out why his seaweed broths were so delicious did a series of experiments. The end result was the extraction of glutamic acid form kelp. So here he had it. Culinary Gold. A substance that when added to anything would help it taste even better. Except it was very unstable. Free glutamate is as unstable as substances get and therefore readily bonds with anything. Anything can mean something delicious, but it can also mean something very nasty. So in his attempt to have glutamate available at his leisure he bonded it to a salt. Hence the name Monosodium (1 salt) Glutamate (glutamic acid that is.) So, all MSG encompasses is extracted glutamic acid. Over the years it got a bad rep, mainly because of Chinese food, but it is my belief along with a growing cooking community that it wasn’t the MSG that was creating those “MSG Symptoms,” it was the high sugar and fat contents of American Chinese food. Whatever that means.

Apart from glutamic acid there are a series of other peptides that have the same effect on our senses. There is no clear story on how they work quite yet. Some speculate that they cause flavor molecules to stay in our tongue for a prolonged period of time while others argue that there is a set of taste buds designed to perceive only these peptides. Martians believe that both these past arguments are true. The process by which these are broken down is called hydrolysis. So anytime you see “hydrolyzed protein” or “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” it essentially wants to tell you glutamate solution without saying the G word. Because to be labeled as a natural ingredient, an this is decreed by the FDA, the minimum requirement is that said ingredient is extracted, or coming form, a natural untouched-by-human-hands ingredient, the label “natural flavoring” can very well mean glutamates. So don’t think that your bottle of Liquid Aminos are as honest as they claim. Read the label: “hydrolyzed vegetable proteins.”

I dont doubt that, like to everything else, there are people with hypersensitivity to glutamates. I do hope that this post helps clarify the nature of MSG, its function, and how it can be used for good.

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