In the Beginning…The Origin of MSG

I’ve received a few e-mails asking about the origin of MSG in foods, so I decided to do some research on this dietary scourge. And I was fascinated by what I found.

Although glutamic acid had been isolated in 1866 by the German chemist Karl Ritthausen, through fermentation, it wasn’t until 1908 that its flavor-enhancing potential was noticed by Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo, Japan. Prior to that, the Japanese used seaweed as a favorite flavor enhancer, without understanding that glutamic acid was the flavor-enhancing component. As you already know by following this blog, seaweed is carageenan, which is MSG.

But even before the Japanese discovered the flavor potential of processed free glutamic acid extracted from seaweed, the potential of isolating glutamic acid from protein using acid hydrolysis was being explored in Europe. At the time, however, the method was not widely used.

Monosodium Glutamate was first used in the late 1940s — arriving in the United States in the years following World War II.  By the 1960s, marketed as Accent, it was the leading brand of flavor enhancers called “monosodium glutamate.” It had become a household word and a popular choice of amateur and professional chefs around the world.

At the same time, other hydrolyzed protein products such as autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein gained in popularity. As you already know as a reader of this blog, any hydrolyzed protein product, regardless of the name given to it on a label, contains MSG. Always.

Use of MSG in food has grown in the last four decades and is still growing. MSG is found in most soups, salad dressings, processed meats, frozen entrees, ice cream, and frozen yogurt, in some crackers, breads, canned tuna, and very often in “low fat” and “no fat” foods to make up for flavor lost when fat is reduced or eliminated. It can also be found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and dietary supplements. Scarier still, MSG can also be found in infant formula. However, it should be noted that in the late 1970s, food manufacturers voluntarily removed all obvious MSG-containing ingredients from baby food. 

There have been some notable attempts by food manufacturers to remove MSG from ingredients (Campbell’s Soups for one), but most other food companies, as well as the restaurant industry, continue to include MSG in their ingredients and continue to resist its removal from their products.

It’s interesting that so many food companies have moved so quickly to offer gluten-free alternatives, but not in removing MSG. There’s been a gluten-free “craze” for the last few years with companies rushing to remove gluten from their ingredients. The reason of course, is simple math. They’ll offer gluten-free alternatives at a premium and help their bottom lines. Quite frankly, it would be a lot easier for me to avoid gluten (if I were allergic to it) than it has been for me to avoid MSG. It’s taken tremendous diligence on my part to continue to avoid it — at times unsuccessfully — because it’s included (and hidden) in so many foods. My research has helped me greatly in avoiding the accidental MSG poisonings that plagued me in the first year I discovered my allergy.

I hope you’ll continue to follow this blog and send in your questions. It is my sincere pleasure to share my findings with you.

Knowledge is power.

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