Vetsin or Monosodium glutamate
Monosodium glutamate is a flavor enhancer and also known as MSG/MNG or vetsin. It is a monosodium salt of glutamic acid. MSG is found in tomatoes, parmesan cheese, potatoes, mushrooms and other fruits and vegetables (wiki). I read on this breastmilk website it even occurs in breast milk.
Vetsin has a bad image. It wouldn’t be good for your heart and it would give you a headache, but that’s not true. This story is a good example of a fake news story. This fake story has often been refuted online, but now that my favorite writer Bill Bryson is writing about it, I too have to dedicate a post to it because it is a question I regularly get from people who follow a workshop with me or read this blog.
Well-known British writer Bill Bryson quotes this story in his book: The Body, A guide to occupants. I think it is important to share untruths about food on this blog, especially when it comes to Asian food.
The story starts with the taste ‘umami’. There are 5 basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. This is a Japanese word and means something like ‘savory’. Bryson literally translates it into English:
[…] flavor umami, meaning ‘essence of deliciousness’
Bill Bryson The Body, a Guide for Occupants (2019), page 106
In the early 20th century, the chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered the source of this taste and synthesized (recreated) it in the laboratory into monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Bill Bryson explains that no one outside Japan really paid attention to his discovery. The word umami was not used in English until 1963, when it first appeared in an academic paper. Even more astonishing, it wasn’t until 2002 that Ikeda’s discovery was translated into English when Western researchers discovered taste receptors for umami.
Ikeda became ‘world famous’ in Japan not so much as a scientist, Bryson explains, but as a co-founder of a company Ajinomoto. The company specializes in synthetic umami. Ajinomoto is now gigantic and supplies 1/3 of the world’s MSG needs.
The image of MSG has changed since 1968, when a letter appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine from a doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who sometimes seemed not to feel well after eating at a Chinese restaurant. He wonders whether MSG could be the cause of this. The headline of the letter was: ‘Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome’.
This little trigger in a letter suddenly made people think that MSG was some kind of poison, but the letter contained no evidence or scientific studies.
MSG is a well-known ‘ingredient’ in nature. It occurs in all kinds of food, for example in some tomatoes. They indeed have a savory taste even though they are fruits.
MSG has been subjected to a lot of research, mainly because it had such a negative image, but not a single negative effect has ever been found.
Want to read more about this?
The New York Times has written a very interesting article \about this.
If you can log in to the Washington Post, here is a link to ‘No, MSG isn’t bad for you’.