Last Chance Foods: The MSG-Umami Connection

Friday, March 30, 2012

“In the case of MSG, the record is about as clear as it can be: there is no connection between consuming MSG in any form and the symptoms that are often called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” wrote food science expert Harold McGee in the first issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly food journal published by McSweeney’s.

Instead, McGee explained that monosodium glutamate’s bad rap started with a speculative letter to the editor published in a 1968 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. A doctor noted that he and his friends would experience weakness, numbness and headaches after eating Chinese food. He was curious whether the MSG used in Chinese food might be the cause. The letter writer offered no evidence to back up the claim and did not have a background relating to how the body processes MSG. But the missive did result in a catchy headline: “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” 

“[The letter asked] a question, it wasn’t an answer, but it was such a snappy title that people picked up on it like it was news … and from that letter, it spread,” explained Peter Meehan, the editor of Lucky Peach and co-author of the Momofuku cookbook. “It was immediately rejected as not being true, but people picked up on it. I guess today we would say it went viral.”

By the 1970s, MSG was widely reviled and “No MSG” became a commonplace disclaimer at Chinese restaurants.

“There’s a psychosomatic aspect to it that we’ve been conditioned to believe that MSG is bad for us or will cause these negative reactions,” noted Meehan (pictured below). “There’s no science to back that up.”

Actually, monosodium glutamate is naturally present in many everyday foods, both of the processed and whole food varieties. Sure, it’s in canned chicken broth, packaged ramen, Cheetos and Doritos. Then again, MSG is also found in seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and aged beef. Peter Meehan

Meehan acknowledges that, on a purely literal level, “It can be labeled as a natural flavoring, because it does come from a natural source and it is a flavoring.” The flavor that MSG triggers is umami, a taste of savoriness that joins the widely known flavors of salty, sweet, sour and bitter. 

In recent years, chefs have also become increasingly aware of how glutamates play a role in creating the taste of umami. While high-end chefs aren’t using pinches of MSG extract in their food, they are paying close attention to the natural ingredients that include glutamates.

“We’re seeing a lot of dashis in restaurants these days, which is a Japanese type broth and you make it by steeping kelp, a seaweed, in a flavorful liquid and that kelp is loaded with naturally occurring MSG,” said Meehan. He also notes that fermented foods are also high in glutamic acid.

“I think chefs have become more aware that this flavor is real and they can harness it,” said Meehan. “And it adds a dimension to their cooking that otherwise they’re overlooking, you know, in that you wouldn’t want to not add acid or salt of sweetness to a dish. You pay attention to the level of savoriness to that dish and you make your food more delicious by doing that.”

Below, try chef David Chang’s recipe for the glutamate-laden bacon dashi with potatoes and clams. Also, for those interested in using MSG as an additive, Meehan included a recipe for Phat Phak Kuut (stir-fried fiddlehead ferns) at the bottom of this New York Times Magazine post.

Bacon Dashi with Potatoes & Clams
Reprinted from Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan. Copyright © 2009. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.


  • Bacon Dashi (see below)
  • 1 pound small fingerling potatoes, scrubbed
  • 2 dozen littleneck or butter clams
  • ¼ pound (3 or 4 slices) smoky bacon, preferably Benton’s, cut crosswise into 1- to 1 ½- inch batons (1/2 cup)
  • Usukuchi (light soy sauce) if needed
  • Mirin if needed
  • Greens from 6 scallions, cut into 1 ½-inch lengths and finely julienned, or ½ cup scallion oil (see below)

1.  Heat the bacon dashi in a large soup pot over high heat. Once it boils, turn the heat down so the dashi simmers and add the potatoes. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until tender. (Check by tasting one.) When the potatoes are cooked, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and reserve; leave the bacon dashi on the stove over low heat.

2. While the potatoes are simmering, put the clams in a large bowl of cold water and let them sit for a few minutes to purge any grit, then scrub their shells clean of any sand.

3. Heat a 10- to 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for a minute or so, until very warm. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it shrinks to about half its original size and browns but does not become overly crisp, about 4 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels (reserve the bacon fat for another use if you like).

4. Meanwhile, when the bacon’s getting close to done, raise the heat under the dashi and bring it to a boil. Add the clams, cover the pot, and boil the clams until they’re all open, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, add the potatoes to warm them up in the broth, and taste it for seasoning. Although bacon dashi is salty and the liquid the clams added to the broth is also salty, the broth might need a splash of soy sauce; or if it needs sweetness or acid, add a splash of mirin.

5. Ladle the soup out into bowls, avoiding the liquid at the very bottom of the pot if the clams threw off sand while they were cooking; discard any clams that didn’t open. Garnish each bowl with some of the crisped bacon and a scattering of julienned scallions or a ring of scallion oil.

Bacon Dashi (Makes 2 quarts)


  • Two 3-by-6-inch pieces konbu
  • 8 cups water
  • 1⁄2 pound smoky bacon, preferably Benton’s 

1. Rinse the konbu under running water, then combine it with the water in a medium saucepan. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. 

2. Add the bacon. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down so the water simmers gently. Simmer for 30 minutes at 60 degrees Celsius. 

3. Strain the bacon from the dashi. 

Scallion Oil (Makes about 1 cup)


  • 1 bunch scallions, whiskers trimmed and any limp greens excised
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 ¼ cups grapeseed or other neutral oil

1. Roughly chop the scallions. Put them in the jar of a blender, along with the salt and oil, flip the switch to puree, and let the blender do its thing until the scallions and the oil are almost one — stop it before they’re totally emulsified.

2. Set a fine-mesh strainer lined with a piece of cheesecloth over some sort of receptacle to collect your scallion oil. Pour the scallion sludge into the strainer. Use a wooden spoon to press the oil out of the scallion mush, but don’t force the issue: you want just a limpid green oil, so leaving some behind in the strainer is fine. Use the oil immediately or keep it for a day or two in the refrigerator.


Peter Meehan

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Comments [10]

Jeffrey James

I disagree with the conclusion of this article -- MSG definitely has negative health effects. For me, it took me a while to figure out why I was getting headaches at work everyday, until I noticed the peanuts I was snacking on had MSG in them. I stopped eating the peanuts, and my headaches went away. And like "Surprised" said, there are countless studies supporting the fact that MSG is bad for you.

Oct. 03 2013 06:50 PM

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Mar. 07 2013 02:52 AM
Surprised from New York, NY

I am very surprised at the irresponsibility in reporting demonstrated in this article. Years of peer-reviewed scientific literature exposing the dangers of artificial MSG are ignored in favor of a generally ignorant statement by non-scientist Peter Meehan:

"There’s a psychosomatic aspect to it that we’ve been conditioned to believe that MSG is bad for us or will cause these negative reactions,” noted Meehan (pictured below). “There’s no science to back that up.”

Culture Producer Joy Y. Wang, did you not even do a simple google search to fact check? How do your editors feel about that?

Here is just a tiny sample of the research you could have found:

Eye damage:

MSG-induced asthma:

Glutamate role in neuronal death:

Learning deficit associated with neonatal MSG exposure:

I can literally post dozens, if not hundreds of links to research papers exposing the risks and dangers of artificial MSG, yet you publish a quote that says there is no science to back that up?

Surprising, to say the least.

Apr. 04 2012 09:00 AM
Dyske from New York

MSG is in just about EVERYTHING you eat in Japan. And, Japanese people are much healthier and live much longer than Americans. Even if Dr. Russell Blaylock is right, given the fact that virtually every Japanese person has been consuming MSG every day all their lives AND live much longer than Americans, how relevant is his claim? MSG should be the least of our concern. Salt is more harmful to us than MSG. If adding MSG is "cheap out", adding salt and/or sugar to your food is a "cheap out" too. They are all chemical compounds.

Apr. 02 2012 11:05 PM
Allison from Chicago

I hope that Last Chance Foods isn't calling this issue settled. Simply because MSG is controversial, siting MSGs introduction into pop culture doesn't necessarily frame the debate properly. Calling only Chinese restaurants out IS a decidedly narrow way to scientifically question the additive, but it's a good way to involve people who wouldn't normally react. That what anecdotes are all about, right?

Perhaps Last Chance could address the evidence that scientists use MSG as a tool to make test rats & mice obese? Or respond to studies that may indicate that MSG (and similar additives with different names) have negative impacts on the brain and production of insulin. The study sited in the program was based on human emotion and experience, and seemed to neglect the use actual of scientific data removed from the subjectivity inherent in using a placebo to prove or disprove impacts on brain and hormonal function.

I hope to see a more deep response to claims of adverse health effects of MSG. I do not hope to see something that mimics my own opinions, but just exhibits more care and skepticism to a complex topic. It's hard to imagine that Last Chance truly believed they solved this issue in 5 minutes, but the inclusion of the recipe indicated otherwise.

Thanks for reading and for inspiring debate. Hope to see a volley soon!

Apr. 01 2012 04:16 PM
betsy from Albany NY

BACON Dashi? Talking about oxymoronic thinking. Writing about MSG and then providing a recipe containing bacon, whose nitrites are probably much worse for us, as carcinogens, than MSG.


Mar. 31 2012 05:04 PM
Intercept Media from Portland, OR

Dr. Russell Blaylock, a retired neurosurgeon, wrote one of the most important books on the dangers of MSG and foods that behave like MSG. The book is called, "Excitoxins: The Taste that Kills". Dr. John Olney, a pioneering research scientist whose work ultimately led to the prohibition of MSG in baby foods, found that MSG and aspartame created holes in the brains of mice.

Since MSG used as a food additive enters the bloodstream at a more rapid pace than glutimates ingested naturally, Jack Samuals provides a crucial service by listing additives that behave like MSG. Truthinlabellingdotorg.

Mar. 31 2012 03:09 PM
csolaz from nyc

I wonder if the "symptoms" of MSG are just due to dehydration?

Great article! Gotta try the bacon dashi.

Mar. 30 2012 08:40 PM

May I also add--MSG is a cheap out--make good food out of good, fresh, REAL ingredients (NOT canned chicken broth!) and the flavor will be there without an artificial additive.

Mar. 30 2012 08:00 PM

Nonsense! I get very ill from MSG--and has happened to me MANY times when I have not known it was in the food.

Mar. 30 2012 07:57 PM

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Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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