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Slate's Food: Is MSG Making a Comeback?

NOAH ADAMS, host:

Let's try something, Madeleine. If I say the words hydrolyzed soy protein, what am I talking about?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Some disgusting food source I don't want to ingest.

ADAMS: How about autolyzed yeast?

BRAND: Ibid.

ADAMS: Sodium casonate?

BRAND: You know what I'm going to say.

(Soundbite of laughing)

ADAMS: Okay, how about MSG?

BRAND: MSG? Headache, Chinese food.

ADAMS: Yeah, you got it, MSG. And those products I mentioned, the other ones, are roughly the same as MSG. MSG has, as you know, earned a bad reputation and companies who add it to food have come up with new names for it and it's put in food more often than you might think. I talked about MSG with Sara Dickerman. She writes about food for the online magazine Slate, and she reminds us what MSG is and why it's in food in the first place.

Ms. SARA DICKERMAN (Slate): MSG is monosodium glutamate. Which is the salt of the amino acid glutamic acid. And it's used as a flavor enhancer. In the United States you'll most likely find it on grocery shelves as Accent.

ADAMS: Who was the first person and why to use MSG?

Ms. DICKERMAN: The person who discovered it was a Japanese chemistry professor. He was eating a bowl of soup and recognized the flavor in it, that he felt like was distinct as a taste and he figured out that the soup, which was made from seaweed, had large quantities of glutamate, which is that amino acid, and he realized that that flavor could somehow maybe become something valuable for the kitchen.

ADAMS: Who's starting this movement back toward MSG?

Ms. DICKERMAN: Well, I wouldn't over emphasize how much of a movement it is. I just was curious because I saw a New York chef named David Cheng quoted saying that he used Kewpie(ph) mayonnaise in his lobster rolls and he said it's the best mayonnaise in the world because it has MSG. And that was very strange for me because I haven't heard anyone say anything nice about MSG I think as long as I've been alive. And what you find is that chef's don't really advocate MSG, they advocate something that's very closely associated with it, which is the concept of the umomi(ph), which is also known as the fifth flavor.

ADMAS: Umomi?

Ms. DICKERMAN: Yes. For a long time, of course, we've known about the four generally accepted tastes, which are bitter, salty, sour and sweet. Flavor is a more complicated concept, which is those tastes in combination with the sensation of aromas and to some degree the sensation of something like chili heat on your tongue, which is actually a form of pain, all combined to make flavor. In 2000 some scientists published a report that strongly suggests that umomi is in fact a taste and not just a flavor.

ADAMS: So that could be the background appeal of MSG, right?

Ms. DICKERMAN: The appeal of umomi is that it adds a real richness. It's also described as more mouth filling, which is my favorite descriptor.

ADAMS: Now, you have, I understand, done some tests cooking with MSG. How did it turn out for you?

Ms. DICKERMAN: Well, it is an interesting substance. I made a very weak little broth out of some duck bits I had around the house. And I compared two cups of it, one which I added nothing extra to and one which I'd had added a pinch of MSG to, and the MSG broth had more roundness and tasted like the duck had been cooking with something other than just, you know, duck bones. It just had a more rich taste.

ADAMS: So when they come down to the end, are you going to save space on your shelf for MSG or something like it?

Ms. DICKERMAN: I have to say being, having been trained to cook the way I cook, I don't think I would use MSG with any real frequency. It's an, it is an interesting product. But there are some products that I like that have MSG in them. You know, every now and then one adds a bouillon cube to a batch of rice to add a little richness, and that often has MSG and then there's the Kewpie mayonnaise that I mentioned earlier.

ADAMS: Opinion and analysis from Sara Dickerman, who writes about food for the online magazine Slate. You will find her article about MSG at Slate dot com, thank you Sara.

Ms. DICKERMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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