Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, has its fair share of admirers (mostly chefs) and critics who claim it causes migraines and other ailments. This modern-day approach to the flavoring agent is a sharp contrast to the thinking of the 1960s.
While perusing The Seventeen Cookbook, which dates back to 1967 and is geared at young women first learning how to cook, I was surprised (actually shocked) to see MSG listed as one of "the flavorings most commonly used in main dishes."
If MSG appears in a teenage cookbook, is it really so bad?
The first chapter of the book is titled You Can Be a Wonderful Cook and it is there, under a section called Matters of Taste, where you'll find MSG listed alongside salt, pepper, sugar, herbs and spices. Here's what the book says about monosodium glutamate:
"This flavor blender belongs with the good cook's basic seasonings. It's a vegetable substance in crystalline form, one of the amino acids which occur naturally in food. Use it with vegetables to enhance natural flavor. Notice how it makes meats, poultry and fish richer in natural taste. Try it in stews and casseroles to blend and harmonize the flavors."
The Age of Umami
While the term wasn't thrown around back in the 1960s, The Seventeen Cookbook is clearly alluding to umami, a savory taste that has since been categorized as the fifth flavor.
Umami is present in many foods including Parmesan cheese, oysters, soy sauce, tomatoes, mushrooms and even green tea, according to the Umami Information Center.
No one takes flavor more seriously than chefs and umami is the reason why Grant Achatz and David Chang have championed the use of MSG. Achatz likes to blend the seasoning with black pepper and salt which produces “ a creamy vanilla aspect that bridges salinity and pepper somehow in a really good way.”
Chang has focused on producing his own line of umami-rich condiments and has given talks about MSG. Here he is debating whether or not the seasoning can have a bad effect on the body:
If a natural ingredient has the ability to make food taste so good, can it really be so bad?
A Harvard study authored by Monica Singh aimed to analyze the MSG debacle. Singh reports that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration regards the flavoring agent as being "safe for the general population" but public paranoia continues.
What do you think? Do you use MSG? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.