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MSG: It’s now “umami seasoning”

photo 3I was wandering the aisles of a large Asian supermarket in Gwinnett County the other day when I noticed that the packaging for Ajinomoto — the leading Japanese manufacturer of monosodium glutamate — had gotten a makeover.

Now these white crystalline granules define themselves as “umami seasoning” while a banner further states that MSG is “the essence of umami.”

Umami as the fifth primary taste is now a widely accepted notion; you won’t have to read too deeply into too many food articles or watch TV cooking competitions without hearing someone praise the umami flavor of mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, fish sauce, dry cheeses or a host of other foods that register on the tongue’s glutamate receptors as a savory, meaty, rounding depth charge of sensation.

The quickest path to this is MSG, a salt designed to taste of umami just as sodium chloride tastes of saltiness.

People are always surprised that I keep a jar of MSG by the stove. We cook a lot of vegetarian food at home, and I was taking to sneaking chicken bouillon cubes into the recipes. It eventually occurred to me that my palate didn’t want the salt or the (ahem) “chicken flavor” of these cubes, but the MSG contained within.

I don’t use a lot, and no one has complained of ill effects. Does anyone else out there cook with MSG, or do you find that it doesn’t agree with you?

19 comments Add your comment


September 8th, 2010
9:09 am

I’m one of those that it doesn’t agree with – it doesn’t seem to bother me if it’s where it would naturally occur as glutamic acid (seaweed, dairy, eggs for example), only when it is added in as an additional ingredient (sauces, chips, seasoning mixes). Makes for an awful headache. But I am also allergic to gluten, which would make sense as a lot of MSG is made from a wheat source (and also from bacterial fermentation process).


September 8th, 2010
9:14 am

I use the Goya Sazon and Adobo in a few of my dishes, but I try not to use it often. But, I also don’t salt much either. I grew up in a house hold full of high blood pressure, so my mom rarely cooked with salt. It’s funny, because when I taste something I’ve made and I can tell there is something missing, I usually go for something other than salt first, but it’s the salt that would finish the flavor.


September 8th, 2010
9:17 am

I haven’t met many foods that disagree with me (yet – I recently hit 40 so that may change), and I’m a firm believer in “everything in moderation” – if it enhances the flavor, and causes no deleterious side effects, I’m all for it.


September 8th, 2010
9:20 am

I remember the Ajinomoto ads on tv when we lived in Japan in the early 50s — little parachutes weighed down by “salt shakers” of MSG. Also remember the jingle that went with it, ending with “A-ji-no-mo-to.” Found the brand in Denver once — before the Chinese restaurant syndrome. Don’t use it.

Jackie Ewing

September 8th, 2010
9:30 am

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[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Erickson, ajcdinecritic and Lana Stuart, John Kessler. John Kessler said: MSG: It’s now “umami seasoning” [...]


September 8th, 2010
10:56 am

The concern over MSG is pretty overblown. There have been several studies (using a placebo as a control) that showed that huge doses of MSG did nothing to most people. A lot of food naturally contains glutamic acid. A few folks do genuinely have a bad reaction, but it’s pretty rare.


September 8th, 2010
11:07 am

If you’d like to have that chicken/beef flavor but don’t want the salt, Herb-Ox is fairly decent for not having any sodium.

Also, I reccomend having shakers of True Lime and True Lemon in the chicken. Just crystalized juice without any funky preservative flavors or faux sweetners. It’s great especially for a quick SouthEast Asia soup because it adds that lime top note.


September 8th, 2010
11:33 am

I was just reading about MSG yesterday. I think it’s definitely overblown, it’s just another seasoning, which happens to make a small percentage of people feel ill, especially when it’s overused. There are probably more people that hate cilantro than MSG.

Really, I think the biggest downside of using MSG is that it’s slightly “cheating” to achieve really good flavor. But isn’t really much different than when I use a scoop of frozen veal demi-glace to help add depth to a pan sauce?

John, I know you’re into sushi – the book I was reading is Not really recipes, just a very in depth look into the art; also covers food science, nutrition related to fish/sushi. Beautiful photos too.

Trying MF omakase room on Friday night, I’m giddy with excitement.


September 8th, 2010
11:39 am

Oh also, MSG is the 3rd ingredient listed in a Chik Fil A sandwich, behind only chicken and salt.

John Kessler

September 8th, 2010
11:45 am

Reds – there are studies that show use of MSG in moderation can reduce sodium intake….you need only about a third as much salt to taste to get the salty flavor you want…
Jimmy — Report back on omakase room!


September 8th, 2010
12:51 pm

I keep a container of Accent brand MSG and a box of Sazon Goya in the kitchen too. A sprinkle adds considerable depth of flavor to savory dishes, especially tomato sauces, stews, and chilis.

In one of his books, Jeffrey Steingarten has an essay about umami and the lack of medical/physiological data to support claims of “MSG Sensitivity”.


September 8th, 2010
12:54 pm

It definitely can add what’s missing… :)

Kar — i haven’t seen this stuff. Where can I find true lemon and lime? I’m bad about remembering lemon and lime for dishes…


September 8th, 2010
1:14 pm

Off topic but had a fantastic omakase at Nakato a couple years ago – worth the $$. There’s something so exciting and freeing about saying “ok I want to spend 60 bucks – bring me your best”.


September 8th, 2010
11:08 pm

This topic was well-covered in the NY Times a couple of years ago. I wouldn’t cook without it.


September 9th, 2010
2:19 pm

totally effects me. mentally and physically. HORRIBLE stuff. should be illegal.


September 10th, 2010
1:59 pm

I grew up in Japan and my family has (and still does) use ajinomoto (literally, the “foundation of taste”). The misconception regarding ajinomoto is totally overblown. Of course, using too much of it would not be a good idea, but the same could be said of salt or sugar!!!


September 10th, 2010
5:31 pm

Hm. It’s overblown if it doesn’t affect you… As one commenter mentioned, it has no affect on me at all when it’s naturally occurring in an ingredient, but as an additive (and this may only be in combination with certain ingredients, not sure) we’re talking near instant ring o’fire – and it doesn’t go away quickly.

Some people are just more sensitive to certain compounds. Hell, I could drink microbrews until some of these guys figured out how to sterilize properly – fusel alcohols do a number on me too.

BTW, the distaste for cilantro tends to be genetic – not sure that’s the case with MSG.


September 11th, 2010
12:16 am

Ted Allen was talking about this on an episode of “Food Detectives” recently rerun on the Cooking Channel. After he broke it down, it really made me rethink my views on MSG. I’m not really bothered by it, but I don’t know that I’d purposefully add it to my cooking.