It's a Mann's World: Get the MSG?

Olly Mann 15 May 2022

This month Olly Mann gets spicy with a surprising discovery and a flavour revelation

The white powder arrived in a brown paper bag. I ripped it open to reveal the plastic packaging within, temptingly labelled "PURITY GREATER THAN 99 PER CENT". Endorphins triggered, I eagerly licked my finger, dipped it in, and applied a small quantity direct to my tongue, just to get a hit. I felt the impact immediately. It tasted like Chinese takeaway.

Such was my first experience mail-ordering MSG. It won’t be my last. 

As an adult, I’d not actively avoided it, but had certainly never considered buying some. Until recently, had a pollster stopped me in the street and asked me if I agreed with the statement that MSG was harmful, I think I would have concurred - if only on the basis that any chemical concoction is surely an unnecessary accompaniment to fresh meat and veg

But then I investigated the roots of anti-MSG rhetoric for an episode of my podcast The Retrospectors, in which we pore over the events of a particular day in history. The day in question was 4th April, 1968—when Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok, a research scientist in Washington, DC, wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine to query the possible causes of a "syndrome" he experienced when he ate at Chinese restaurants, and posited a theory. 

"An impression was created that some sort of scientific consensus was forming around MSG being actively harmful"

“The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation,” he wrote. He elaborated that he had not experienced such sensations when cooking with soy sauce at home, and speculated that—perhaps—the widespread use of MSG in American Chinese restaurants might be to blame. 

His letter prompted many of his fellow illustrious subscribers to follow-up with their own experiences, which were published in the next issue. Tales of post-noodle headaches and nausea abounded. This amiable to-and-fro was then picked up by the national press—who mostly neglected to emphasise that the correspondence was all anecdotal, not editorial; and was in the letters pages. An impression was created that some sort of scientific consensus was forming around MSG being actively harmful.

The rather racist concept of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" then spread across America; even as MSG continued to be added to ample non-Chinese products and fast food, and was identified as naturally occurring within ingredients including tomatoes, parmesan cheese, yeast extract spread—and even human breast milk. 

Ever since, multiple investigations have attempted to determine if there is anything especially damaging about sometimes sprinkling MSG on your cooking, as Westerners do with salt and pepper. Overwhelming evidence has subsequently answered that, in moderation, and allowing for the fact that some people have an adverse reaction, as they might with any additive (the Chinese chef, Ken Hom, for example, has been allergic to synthetic MSG since childhood), it is safe to use—not to mention tasty.

When I discovered this, I tried to buy some: I’ve always enjoyed the sweet-and-sour tang of my local takeaway, and if this was truly the magic ingredient, then I needed some in my life (like almost everyone I know, I’m also trying to cut down on my meat consumption, so the idea of making vegetables taste more like animals sounded dreamy).

First, I headed to Ocado and searched for "MSG". The query returned precisely one product – for "NO MSG" instant noodle soup. Hmm (by comparison, a search for ‘kimchi’ produced nine different items, and ‘Chinese Spice’ brought up ten).

Illustration of noodles with vegetables

Illustration by Eliot Wyatt

Is it illegal, I then wondered? Nope: I quickly located it on the Food Standards Agency’s page of “approved additives and E numbers”.  

So, what gives? Well, in essence, there are rules regulating exactly how much MSG manufacturers can add to their products. So, mainstream British retailers don’t sell it direct to consumers, for fear people will pour half a packet, rather than a pinch, into their wonton soups. But it is available from wholesalers and specialist Asian retailers (London’s famous Japan Centre foodhall, for instance).

Confident in my own ability to divvy out the packet with teaspoons rather than shovels, I located a third-party seller on Amazon (who’d had more than 500 ecstatic reviews—clearly, I wasn’t the only person looking to diversify my spice cupboard…) and ordered a bag of Aji-No-Moto, the original Japanese brand. 

"Clearly, I wasn’t the only person looking to diversify my spice cupboard"

I’ve since used it a couple of times per week, and can confirm that it adds zing and amplifies flavour. Delicately sprinkled on to oven-baked salmon with ginger and spring onion, the fish emerges with a delightful, deep orange sheen. Added lightly to scrambled egg, the results are, I dunno, eggier? And my egg fried rice now has that smooth consistency I had previously only tasted from Chinese restaurants. 

But, of course, my experiences are only anecdotal. Please don’t write in! 

Read more: 15 Must-have condiments for your pantry

Read more: A brief history of liquorice

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