Asian Chefs And Misconceptions Of MSG

After years of defensively touting “No MSG” on their menus, many Asians working in the food industry are not only fighting back against stereotyping of this heritage ingredient — they’re proudly featuring monosodium glutamate, or MSG, on their menus. If you like to eat authentic Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese or Korean food, your taste buds are likely already familiar with MSG, since all those cultures regularly use it in cooking.

MSG is a naturally occurring kind of salt, described scientifically as the “sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid.” It’s present in our bodies and in many glutamate-rich foods like soy sauce, anchovies, tomatoes and cheese.

Chefs use it as a flavor enhancer for both savory and sweet menu items since it provides a punch of pure umami, one of the five tastes that also include sweet, sour, salty and bitter. According to MSG manufacturer Aji-no-moto, umami means “delicious savory taste” in Japanese, and its taste is often described as the meaty, savory quality that deepens flavor. It can also be used as a way to reduce salt in a dish, since MSG contains approximately 12% sodium vs. 40% sodium in salt. 

More umami and less sodium? It’s no wonder places like Mission Chinese in San Francisco have put MSG shakers next to the salt and pepper. There’s even one line of hard seltzer, Lunar, which advertises “a pinch of MSG” in some of its drinks.

How Asian chefs feel about the dark ‘No MSG’ days of yore.

“I grew up in an Asian household, and I never knew MSG had such a bad reputation, since my parents always used it,” said Dan Q. Dao, a Vietnamese American food writer. “After learning more about the negative propaganda surrounding it, I was sort of shocked. But in some ways, it’s not all that surprising. After all, in America, Asian food was often stereotyped as cheap and low quality. It took lots of independent research and self-education on my part to understand that the claims made against MSG were rooted in racism.”

Those claims, which Dao correctly noted have been disproved, include reports of weakness, numbness, palpitations and headaches after eating food containing MSG, often Chinese food.

The misconceptions around the ingredient are plentiful. Korean American chef Kate Telfeyan pointed out one of the biggest blunders: “People think MSG is chemical, but it’s actually plant-derived.” According to the website for Aji-no-moto, a leading producer of MSG, it’s produced through fermentation of plant-based ingredients including sugar cane, sugar beets, cassava or corn.

But that plant-based origin story hasn’t always been understood or appreciated. “If people don’t want to eat MSG, that’s their choice and prerogative,” said Taiwanese American registered dietitian nutritionist Rebecca Valdez. “I have a greater issue with influencers who use fear, guilt and shame to make people feel they’re not eating ‘clean’ enough, or they’re a bad person for making certain food choices, including foods with MSG.” 

Noting that MSG is already used in many packaged foods and in restaurants, Korean American Sean Ro, co-founder of Lunar Hard Seltzer, said, “I don’t see a lot of folks vilifying Chick-fil-A or Doritos for containing MSG — which they absolutely do.”

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