Umami is widely considered to be the fifth basic flavour- a savoury, almost meaty goodness that is something else other than the other four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, is an easy additive that is often added into food to elevate the taste. Chinese people, in particular, love MSG. Unfortunately, it has a bad rep and a lot of controversy surrounds MSG, leading to the popular (but false) perception that it is unhealthy.
In the West, the notion of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ was widely perpetuated, where diners at Chinese restaurants- famous for using MSG- reported experiencing symptoms such as nausea and headache. People were quick to blame it on MSG. A bunch of experiments that followed worsened this perception.
Washington University researcher Dr John W. Olney found that injecting enormous doses of monosodium glutamate under the skin of newborn mice led to the development of patches of dead tissue in the brain. When these mice grew into adulthood they were stunted, obese, and in some cases, sterile. (But we don’t exactly inject MSG into our skin in consumption, obviously).
Olney also repeated his study in infant monkeys, giving them the MSG orally, and noted the same results. But 19 other studies in monkeys by other researchers failed to show the same, or even similar results. (Source: BBC)
In another study, 71 healthy people were given either MSG or a placebo (aka a dud). Researchers found that whether people were actually given MSG or not, they still experienced the alleged Chinese Restaurant Syndrome at the same rate. Even after the participants were swapped over to the other option, nothing changed.
Researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms.
Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. on the Mayo Clinic website
Anyway, MSG is commonly found just about everywhere, from your potato chips to chicken soup. You don’t see people complaining about that.
Furthermore, a lot of us Chinese folk have essentially grown up eating MSG, and I’d wager we’re all perfectly fine.