An MSG Manifesto: Flavor Enhancers and Why I’m Pro-MSG

ac'cent msg

My mother, who is eighty-eight, keeps a huge canister of Ac’cent in a cupboard alongside the salt and pepper. The container holds monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that Viet cooks have been using since before she was born. It’s a staple that was rationed during food shortages; in the late 1970s, some Viet expats mailed MSG (bột ngọt, “sweet powder”) to struggling family members in Vietnam so they would have a precious item to sell or trade.

For most of my culinary life, I’ve been neutral about flavor enhancers, generically called hạt nêm (seasoning granules) in Vietnamese. My savory dishes, made with fish sauce and animal proteins, both deliciously rich in glutamates, were terrific without enhancements. However, while working on this book, I sometimes got into a veggie-centric bind and needed an ingredient to finesse the flavors that I expect in Vietnamese cooking. If adding additional salt only made the dish harshly salty, I reached for a flavor enhancer. BAM! A subtle, extra-wonderful đậm đà (boldly savory) taste appeared. Recipes in this book don’t often call for flavor enhancers, but when they do, add a little to take a dish from good to great.

When considering flavor enhancers, Viet cooks mostly choose between MSG and MSG-less seasoning granules derived from mushrooms and other vegetables. Both amplify the flavors of food, but the beige granules cloud liquids and, depending on their taste, may overwhelm. Crystalline MSG doesn’t cloud broths and plays well with other ingredients without taking over. I keep several flavor enhancers on hand but use MSG the most.

What is MSG’s magic? Based on the flavor properties of seaweed and created in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, MSG is concentrated, commercially made glutamic acid, which, when dissolved in food, adds savory deliciousness—umami, a term coined by Ikeda. Glutamic acid is a nonessential amino acid produced by the human body; it is also naturally present in many ingredients and foods. Our bodies do not identify MSG’s glutamic acid as being different from its natural kin.

Is MSG harmful? On a daily basis, we eat about 13 grams of naturally occurring glutamate versus roughly 0.5 gram of added MSG, as reported by EatingWell magazine. Research spanning from the 1970s to today shows no definite link between MSG and reported symptoms, such as heart palpitations, headaches, and sweating. That said, a small number of people have short-term reactions, many of which are mild. Consuming a large amount of MSG on an empty stomach may result in side effects, but that’s not a common situation. I adore processed foods with MSG, such as Doritos and Top Ramen, but I don’t eat them often. Cooking from scratch allows me to keep my MSG consumption at a low to moderate level.

How to use MSG? A flavor enhancer is not a flavor replacer. To build umami, I use MSG along with salt, sugar, and other ingredients. Flavor-enhanced food ideally tastes fabulous but still like itself. Because of weight differences, apply a 1-to-2 volume ratio of MSG to Asian mushroom seasoning granules. A teaspoon of flavor enhancer has a much saltier hit than a teaspoon of salt. When experimenting, decrease the normal salt amount by about one-third and make up the difference by gradually adding MSG and tasting along the way.