We associate MSG with Chinese takeaway food but it’s used much more widely. Photo: James Sutton

Is MSG really bad for us?

MSG – the evil ingredient in Chinese food; at least there’s a lot of people who think that’s the case.

Most people believe it is used in Chinese cooking to thicken sauces but it is actually a flavour enhancer (just like salt and sugar). It will add the famous umami flavour to dishes – this difficult to explain savoury flavour we so love.

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and is the salt (sodium) of glutamate acid which can be found naturally in foods like tomatoes and cheese.

MSG was first extracted from natural food by a Japanese biochemist who tried to isolate the flavour from seaweed (kombu to be precise) to add to stocks etc and most of stock cubes and granules have MSG included.

Production of MSG is done by bacterial fermentation with sodium added afterwards. Many people say that they get headaches after eating Chinese food but tests in the US have proven that this is not caused by MSG as it has no properties that could cause headaches.

It has been categorised as generally safe to consume by food safety authorities. MSG is gluten-free and can be used in many recipes – not only Asian-inspired ones. You can use it in making kimchi, ramen and stir fry dishes but also for burgers, pasta dishes and anywhere you like to add the umami flavour profile to your food.

Chefs seem to be divided by MSG – with Anthony Bourdain loving it but a Chinese Michelin starred chef uses chicken powder instead, saying he doesn’t serve anything he wouldn’t eat either.

Personally, I have never used MSG in cooking as I always assumed it was limited to Chinese/Asian cuisine. As I am discovering and learning more about Asian cooking, I have to amend my opinion about certain ingredients like MSG. I recently bought a Korean cookbook and none of the recipes include MSG but in a Japanese cookbook from 1984, MSG is used in some of the recipes.

Even back then, it seemed that people were concerned about the use of MSG and the cookbook addressed it by suggesting that people not use more than a quarter teaspoon per person. This was based on the assumption that MSG caused headaches.

While reading the Japanese cookbook, I found some interesting recipes with pork (I think we don’t use pork enough), one being satsuma jiru – a miso stew with pork and vegetables. The recipe itself is quite detailed with specific measurements but when it comes to MSG, it just stated MSG with no amounts given.

As the recipe is for six people and considering the guidelines in the book, it would make for one and a half teaspoons.

Now, I have to go and get some MSG (you should be able to get it in most Asian food markets) and start experimenting with it – watch this space for updates!