[ INTRO] Foodies can’t stop talking about umami — the savory taste that’s taking over theculinary scene and which, along with sweet, sour, bitter, andsalty, is one of the five basic tastes that our tongues perceive.
But if you’re a fan of Chinese takeout, you’ve been team umami from the get-go.
That’s because MSG— that flavoring often associated with AmericanChinese food— is umami in its purest form.
And while you might have been told it’sbad for you or causes the so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, ”science disagrees.
As much as we associate MSG with Chinese food, there isn’t anything inherently Chinese, or even Asian, about the compound.
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate—thesodium salt of glutamate— an amino acid that the human body can synthesize, but that we also get from our food.
Like other amino acids, glutamate is an importantbuilding block for proteins, and it also helps nerve cells send signalsto other cells in the body— it’s the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitterin vertebrates.
Since it’s so important for our bodies, it’s not surprising we’ve evolved a taste for it.
We have umami-specific receptors on our tonguesand in our stomachs, and these drive our love for foods that containglutamate like tomatoes, mushrooms, and aged cheeses.
And umami-rich foods have been staples inhuman diets for, well, /forever/.
For example, historians call the concoctionknown as Garum— an umami-filled sauce made from fermentedfish guts—the ketchup of ancient Rome.
And we’ve been concentrating available, naturally-occurring glutamate by sun-drying tomatoes and curing meats forcenturies, long before we knew what amino acids were.
Even babies seem to like MSG, which makessense, because human milk is naturally rich in glutamate.
But purified MSG wasn’t a thing until 1908, when a Japanese chemist realized that thebase made from kombu seaweed in his soup imparted a delicious flavor that wasn’tone of the four previously-established tastes.
He soon isolated the crystalline salt of glutamatefrom the kelp, striking culinary gold.
He called the crystals Ajinomoto, which meansessence of taste.
And it wasn’t long before MSG became commercialized.
In Asia, it was branded a staple for any moderncook, and quickly became ubiquitous in kitchensacross Japan and China.
By the early 1930s it had gone global, withcompanies like Heinz and Campbell’s adding MSG to their products.
And even the US military hopped on the MSGtrain.
During World War II, the army used the bestavailable food science to develop nutritionally dense rations with long shelf lives, called K-rations, but soldiers hated them because they weresuper bland.
So, in the late 1940s, they started addingMSG to them, and suddenly, they weren’t so reviled.
Our universal love for MSG isn’t just fromits savory goodness.
Studies have shown that umami functions asa flavor enhancer, creating a harmony between various flavorsand aromas and adding a sort of dimension to both— a phenomenon known as umami synergy.
That sounds kind of nebulous, but consider a 2007 study published in theEuropean Journal of Neuroscience.
Researchers as Oxford University had twelvevolunteers sip an umami drink made of water, MSG, and the nucleotide iiwhile sniffing a vegetable aroma.
On their own, both the umami drink and thevegetable aroma were considered unpleasant and bland.
But when combined, they were rated higher, and they just seemed to go together betterthan a salty drink paired with the same smell.
What was really telling, though, was that brain activity maps showed way moreneurons associated with flavor and pleasure lit up from the combo than would have been estimated by adding upthe isolated effects of each.
Given all this, you might be wondering whycompanies now proudly proclaim their food doesn’t contain MSG, or people say it makes them sick.
Well, while our love of MSG comes from biology, a lot of people’s aversion to it seems tohave roots in something else entirely—racism.
It all started with a 1968 letter to the editorof the New England Journal of Medicine describing the author’s and his friends’so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome following the consumption of Chinese food, including symptoms like heart palpitations, generalized weakness, and radiating numbness.
The idea took hold, spurring years of biasedscience based on the flawed assumption that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was a realthing, and that MSG caused it.
Subsequent animal studies seemingly confirmedthe idea, but these often consisted of injecting super concentrated doses of MSG directly intocreatures’ abdomens, which is not exactly a scientific approach to determining the effectsof MSG sprinkled into saucepans.
More recent research on MSG aversion has takeninto account the xenophobia and racism that fueled it.
And over the last 3 decades, a number of double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies, including studies of subjects with reported sensitivity to MSG, have failed to find a reproducible response to ingesting foods with MSG.
A much more likely explanation for feelingcrummy after Chinese takeout is the nocebo effect, where you feel sick simply becauseof the belief that something will make you ill.
Fortunately, scientists are one step aheadof the haters.
Investigation into potential health benefitsof MSG is ongoing, with research suggesting it can help increase salivation and appetitein the elderly, increase satiety and therefore reduce caloric intake in those trying to loseweight, and help impart flavor while reducing overall dietary sodium.
So yeah, MSG doesn’t deserve its toxic reputation.
But you don’t need to avoid your favoriterestaurant just because they use a little.
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