The Myths of MSG

When we heard the term “generasi micin” (MSG generation) to describe young millenials who act stupid, we felt the urge we need to do some investigation to tell if there’s any truth to the statement. Fortunately, ACP (Association of Culinary Professionals) Indonesia invited Chef Eric Low on June 30th 2018 to do a food science seminar, and in one of his session, Eric discussed about the use of MSG.

Chef Eric Low is a Singaporean chef with over 30 years of local and international culinary experience. He was graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and SHATEC. His work experience involved being an R&D Chef for Nestle’s Research & Development Department, private chef in luxurious mega yachts in Europe, US, Middle East. Now he’s a board member of Singapore Chefs Association, chef-owner of Lush Epicurean (Singapore based culinary consultancy), author of cook books, and Chef Instructor of local culinary institutions.


Before discussing about MSG, it’s best to understand the concept of umami. We used to know only 4 basic taste: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, but thanks to Professor Kikunae Ikeda (founder of Ajinomoto), the world discovered the fifth one in 1908, umami. However, it was only in 1985 the world recognized the term umami as scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii.

It’s a bit difficult to describe the taste of umami, but in general, it has 3 characteristics:

  1. it spreads all over the tongue
  2. it lasts longer
  3. it facilitates the secretion of saliva.

Whenever you heard the term “mouthwatering” food, most of the times,people refer to the umami flavor of the dish. Compared to the other 4 basic taste, umami occupy the biggest taste area in our tongue, that’s why you get the “spread all over tongue” sensation.

In western cuisine, you can get umami frequently from processed food such as cheese, bacon, or ham. However, in Asia, the umami is more widely known because Asian cuisines involve lot of fermentation process. The natural sources of umami are the dried seafoods, such as dried shrimp, dried cuttlefish, or dried bonito tuna (aka katsuobushi in Japanese). Japanese people  love to have their bonito flesh to be sun-dried to concentrate the amount of glutamic acid, and shave it as katsuobushi, often served in okonomiyaki.

In general, all the dried seafood have high level of glutamic presence that are usually used to enhance the stock or stew. However, glutamic doesn’t come only from seafood, we also have sources of glutamic acid from soy bean, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower), and tomato.

“Most of us buy tomatoes from supermarket, but if you have the chance to taste tomato on the farm, pick the one from the vine, wash, and eat it on the spot, it’s a big difference. You’ll have the umami taste from the tomato juice all over your mouth. It has the same sweet and sour profile, but it has the lingering behind your tongue sensation when you swallow it, like some residual savouriness. If you can identify it, that’s the presence of glutamic acid in tomato, it’s one of the highest amount of glutamic acid found in plants,” said Chef Eric.

The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

If you heard the name MSG, most people will associate it in negative ways. Some believe it’s dangerous chemical, other believe the Chinese restaurant syndrome (it makes you thirsty, nauseous, headache). ”I used to be thinking the same way as you guys. I listened to what other people are telling me, without even doing any investigations of my own research, that’s how I was taught. When I stepped into the food science industry, the whole thing is not even the way it was,” Eric recalled.

On its own, glutamic acid can only be found in very small amount, pure glutamate is very expensive as well. “Nobody can really afford to pack that little beads of glutamic into size that can be sold commercially. What the science has done is combined it with sodium salt. Since, salt is sodium chloride, we don’t want to have too much salt, but we need enough salt for the glutamic acid to be able to carried on it, so that’s how we came up with the term MSG (monosodium glutamate), it’s the scientific description,” said Eric. If you don’t know MSG, you must have known the brand names, such as Ajinomoto, Sasa, Royco, Vetsin, etc.

The Flavor Enhancer

MSG is intended to be used as flavor enhancer, not flavor replacer, this is where the confusion lies. “MSG can push the flavor of chicken, pork, beef, lamb, even vegetable, but can you take any ingredients that can be replaced by MSG powder, let say, you replace dried shrimp flavor with MSG? Of course, you can’t!” said Eric.

To understand better, Chef Eric served 3 bowls of water, each one was mixed with sugar, salt, and MSG and let the audience to taste them. “If you taste the MSG water, you’ll have the salivating effect, but does it remind you of any food you have tasted? If you tell me it tastes like chicken stock, it’s not because MSG powder has chicken in it, but instead, because it has been used so much in the seasoning in the chicken stock that you think that MSG powder should taste like chicken stock,” explained Eric.

To explain it further, Chef Eric asked the audience to do the experiment at home. “Put the dried shrimp into hot water, simmer it, add little MSG and salt, it will make the burst of flavor. Using the same amount of dried shrimp and water, try simmer it without any MSG, you’ll see the difference. The one with MSG will have much more intensity,” said Eric.