Banned: MSG — the ‘Evil Salt of the East’
There are few foods so maligned in the West as monosodium glutamate, often simplified to MSG. Food labels and menus will be emblazoned with ‘MSG free’, a badge of honour from companies who are doing little but playing into our fears of what we’re eating to sell us products at marked up prices.
Our fear of MSG is steeped in controversy and conspiracy theories, but how did we get to this point?
Discovery and arrival in the West
In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Idkeda asked his wife how she made how she made such delicious soups. Her answer was simple: seaweed. She would steep it water and from there the taste that is so prominent in Asian cuisine could infuse the broth. Idkeda was able to isolate the glutamic acid, the compound that gives MSG its distinct taste, mix it with sodium, and began to manufacture and sell it commercially, becoming fabulously wealthy in the process. He is also responsible for contributing the phrase ‘umami’ to our lexicon, a ‘fifth taste’ to add to the sweet, sour, salty and bitter that we all know and love.
Though the process of making MSG has changed over the decades, its contents remain the safe. World War 2 is frequently credited with introducing MSG to the West. American soilders apparently preferred the taste of the requisitioned Japan military’s ration packs to their own because of the addition of MSG and they returned to the US with a taste for the fifth flavour.
It would be nearly 23 years later before anyone decided that this suspicious ‘foreign flavour’ needed to be investigated and it would be a man named Dr R.H. Kwok who would finally expose it. In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine he claimed that following a meal in a Chinese restaurant he experienced symptoms such as a burning sensation, facial tightness and tingling sensations.
1968 was already a year of turmoil in the US, including Martin Luther King Jr’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, the Tet Offensive and student riots, and…