You can cut back on sodium—and boost flavor—by cooking with it.
We’ve all seen it: the sign in the window or on the menu at most Chinese restaurants that assures the public that no MSG is used. If you’re anything like me, you’ve just accepted that it means MSG is bad and is to be avoided.
Not so, says celebrity chef and television host Andrew Zimmern. MSG is not only one of the basic tastes, but it's in tons of food, and it actually has some health benefits.
Zimmern recently spoke at the World Umami Forum, presented by Japanese food giant Ajinomoto, in New York City. Over two days, the Forum played host to chefs, cooks, and foodies of all stripes, who came together to discuss and celebrate "umami," also known as the fifth taste, or savory. And the most basic version of this—the salt to salty taste—is MSG, or monosodium glutamate, which was developed 109 years ago.
What is MSG, exactly? It's a naturally-occurring compound found in Parmesan, tomatoes, and other savory foods—the thing that makes them taste yummy.
Zimmern was kind enough to speak with Cooking Light by telephone about all things MSG and umami. My first question was the most basic: Is MSG really safe to cook with?
Zimmern’s answer was swift, “People outside the United States, use it all the time and they’re just fine. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, cooking with Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Chinese chefs since the late 70s, early 80s, and they were all using it. I [soon] figured out that MSG is harmless.”
So why do Americans fear it? Zimmern felt it was the same reason people fear anything: They haven't bothered to learn about it. “You can call it culinary bias, or culinary racism," said Zimmern. "In the 1960s there was a letter that was sent to the New England Journal of Medicine. This person had eaten in a Chinese restaurant..." The man, Robert Ho Man Kwok, claimed to experience numbness after eating Chinese food."
We don't know much about the original writer, but in the letter it was clear he "thought that his discomfort was caused by sodium, [or by] Chinese ingredients like rice wine, or MSG. And the Journal published this letter, and they dubbed the problem Chinese restaurant syndrome. The result was an explosion of bias against the use of MSG," said Zimmern. Though there was no evidence for it, the idea that eating in Chinese restaurants caused health problems started to grow in the public consciousness, and eventually MSG was blamed for causing everything from headaches, to chest pain, to more.
And yet, MSG is not only perfectly good, just like salt or sugar, adding a touch can make things taste incredibly delicious. "If you taste a bowl of plain vegetable broth and then you try one that has [some] MSG in it, it’s a night and day flavor difference. It makes food taste good. And that's why MSG is a great ingredient to add in the kitchen.”
MSG works best in combination with salt. And it can actually be a good way to cut back on salt intake—which is vital for maintaining good blood pressure. In addition to pure MSG, Zimmern keeps a mixture of salt and MSG, in a two-to-one ratio: “When I use that, I’m eliminating [some of] the salt.”
Want to try it out yourself? You can pick up a bag of MSG on Amazon for less than $6, and follow Zimmern's instructions: “Make a bowl of sea salt to MSG in a two-to-one ratio: salt to MSG. That's the easiest way to do it." And then you can simply use it the way you would use salt, knowing that
"You’re gonna be cooking healthier for your family, you’re gonna be using less salt in the kitchen, and I think that’s the easiest, simplest way to do it," says Zimmern. "There are some dishes that don’t require any additional salt, but you do want to get the benefits of adding that incredible umami component to your foods that MSG offers. If you’re not using it with salt, 1/3 to 1/2 a teaspoon of MSG will season four, five, or six portions of food whether that’s a pound of meat, [or] five or six portions of vegetables—a little bit goes a long way, and it really does make a huge difference.”
Making good food tastier is something any parent should be able to appreciate. When Zimmern's son was young, neighbors kids would come over for dinner, and then go home raving about the delicious vegetables they ate. Zimmern would get phone calls from parents asking for his secret. And he was never shy about sharing it: Umami.
“Broccoli with salt and butter on it is delicious. But broccoli with a little bit of brown butter and soy sauce and fish sauce is explosively addictive and craveable—you can’t not take a second bite of it. Now, fish sauce, and soy sauce are all loaded naturally with glutamic acid (or natural MSG). They have a tremendous amount of umami—and there were other dishes that I would use that would have MSG in them—from a health and wellness standpoint and a family standpoint, it’s incredible what this product can do.”
It’s so simple and unscary that a thought strikes me. I ask Zimmern if, in his extensive travels, he’s ever encountered a food that we as Americans find commonplace, but other cultures fear. Absolutely, he says. “What’s the one sandwich every kid in America eats growing up?”
Well, peanut butter and jelly, of course.
“You got it. So in Argentina, if you stand on the street corner with a big giant sign that says Skippy peanut butter and you start handing out little packets to people, no one will take it. Children will run away from it, parents won’t eat it."
And it's not just peanut butter in South America, either, says Zimmern. "I was in Africa, in tribal Uganda, way out in the jungle, trying to share a snack with my translator and I took out some Triscuits and some Cracker Barrel cheddar cheese, and I handed him some and he physically—he moved away from me. He looked at me and he said, ‘What is it with you Americans? You take perfectly good milk, and then you let it rot into little squares.’ And he shook his head and walked away from me. So one man’s delicious is another man’s deadly. It’s a crazy food world out there.”
Note: This article has been updated from its original version. The original article included the misstatement that brown butter contains glutamic acid, a claim that using MSG can help eliminate 1/3 of the salt from one's diet, and stated that MSG was created 110 years ago. According to representatives of Mr. Zimmern and of Ajinomoto, MSG can eliminate about 25% of the sodium in a given recipe. MSG was first patented and commercialized as Ajinomoto by chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1909, 109 years ago.