Part of the series The Story of MSG

The Story of MSG: Discovery

Why did it take us so long to discover umami and MSG, and what happened when we did?

Think about the depth of flavour in a slow-cooked broth, or the sharpness of a blue cheese, or the savoury tang of soy sauce. Scientists and foodies call the flavour that links all of these things umami, and human beings have loved it for about as long as we’ve been cooking food. Our tongues are hard-wired to detect it, since its presence is a good indicator that we’re eating something nutritious and rich in protein. There’s just something about savouriness that gets our taste buds excited.

It’s no wonder, then, that we’ve been looking for ways to boost umami since ancient times. The Romans were fond of “garum”, a salty sauce made from fermented anchovies that isn’t a million miles away from modern Thai fish sauce. In China, they’ve been making soy sauce since the third century BC. Virtually all Asian cuisines, in fact, have lots of common, fundamental ingredients that bring umami to dishes. As well as soy sauce, China uses oyster sauce and black beans. Japan loves its miso (soybeans fermented with kōji fungus) and katsuobushi (fermented, dried and smoked tuna). Thailand has poo naa (fermented crab paste) and nam pla (fish sauce). In Korea there’s doenjang (soy bean paste) and gochujang (fermented chilli paste).

For thousands of years we understood umami on a practical level and could create umami-rich foods. But we didn’t realise that umami flavour was the result of amino acids called glutamates until the early twentieth century; shortly afterwards, we gained the ability to add glutamate to foods, in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). It was as late as 2009 that we finally discovered the receptors that allow humans to taste umami. So how did we come to understand umami, and what took us so long? The fascinating story takes us from the establishment of fine dining in Europe, to the advent of dietetics and physical chemistry, to some chickens in Indonesia and finally through to the industrialisation of Japan.

Paris, 1898

France is justifiably famous for its haute cuisine, but it’s amazing how quickly and how recently the French culinary worldview was established. It’s virtually all down to one person: Auguste Escoffier, working from the 1890s through to the 1920s.

Escoffier set out to create a singular European view of what good cooking was and could be, against a backdrop of immense societal change: industrialisation, urbanisation, newfound social mobility and influence from the United States.

That meant modernising some of the more elaborate dishes that had been cooked for royalty and the aristocracy, and adapting them for an emerging middle- and upper-class that ate them at restaurants, rather than having them cooked for them by servants in their grand houses. Those restaurants were very often a part of Escoffier’s other great invention: the luxury hotel containing a cocktail bar and fine-dining restaurant, which Escoffier pioneered first at the Savoy in London and then most famously at the Paris Ritz, which opened in 1898. No longer did a chef work for one family only; they had to create menus that would attract clientele who could just as easily eat elsewhere.

Escoffier developed not only the repertoire of dishes served at these luxurious restaurants, but also the behind-the-scenes practices that were needed to support cooking on this grand scale. In Escoffier’s “brigade” system there were sauciers dedicated to making sauces, rôtisseurs for meat, pâtissiers focusing on desserts, and so on. Culinary schools were established to train chefs in these new roles, starting with Le Cordon Bleu in 1895.

This specialism, training, and competitive hiring environment meant that boundaries could be pushed. If you wanted to be the best saucier, it paid to understand what made the best sauces. You were encouraged to question the nature of flavour. What made things taste good, and how did you make them taste better? Escoffier set in motion a culinary movement that continues to this day, advancing our understanding of taste and applying an almost industrial and scientific approach to creating better-tasting food.

Jakarta, 1896

In the Dutch colonies in Indonesia in the 1880s, there was an epidemic of beriberi. A terrible and seemingly contagious disease, it would begin with symptoms of fatigue and loss of appetite, progressed to tingling and numbness in the extremities and mental confusion, before ending in many cases with death from heart failure. Although it had been known about for centuries, it became suddenly much more prevalent in the 1870s and 1880s.

The germ theory of disease was in vogue at the time; in particular, the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis had been discovered in 1882. And so scientists thought that solving the riddle of beriberi would mean finding a bacterium or other microorganism. A Dutch doctor called Christiaan Eijkman conducted a trial on chickens, injecting them with microorganisms taken from people who had died from beriberi and comparing them to a control group of chickens who hadn’t been injected.

But a strange thing happened: all of the chickens fell ill with beriberi, not just the group that had been injected. Eijkman figured that there must have been some cross-contamination, and so moved the chickens out of the facility in which they were being housed. Even more strangely, though, all of the chickens recovered once they were moved out of the facility – even though Eijkman hadn’t consciously given them any sort of cure.

Eijkman discovered that, when in the facility, the chickens had been fed on leftover cooked white rice from the hospital next door. When they moved out, their keeper had switched them to uncooked brown rice. Eijkman realised that a microorganism wasn’t the cause of beriberi; there was something in the uncooked rice that was staving off the disease, and a deficiency of that substance was what led to the onset of beriberi. He eventually realised that polishing rice removes the husk, which contains thiamin, an essential nutrient. Indonesians had been eating much more polished rice since the introduction of steam-driven rice mills by the Dutch in the 1870s – hence the outbreak of beriberi.

He didn’t realise it at the time, but Eijkman had just taken the first step in a journey that would culminate in the discovery of vitamins. By 1896, as Eijkman returned to Europe with his findings, it had become clear that there was more to nutrition than just protein, carbohydrates, fats and salts. He had discovered that what we ate contained lots of other nutrients that were essential to our survival – and that these nutrients could be subjected to scientific observation, enquiry and understanding. For this discovery, Eijkman would eventually share the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1929.

Tokyo, 1907

At the turn of the twentieth century, Japan was three decades into the rapid modernisation of the Meiji era. It had opened up to the world, and was looking to harness the scientific and industrial ideas that were seemingly the cause of the rapid economic and military advancement of the US and Europe. Part of its approach was to send students and academics to study abroad, gaining crucial knowledge in natural sciences, engineering and economics.

One such academic was Kikunae Ikeda. Although he studied physical chemistry at university, Ikeda was an autodidact who read widely about English literature, economics, religion and philosophy. In 1899, he went to study in Leipzig with the support of the Japanese government, and was struck – among many other things – by the vigour and physical size of the Germans he met. The recent advancements in nutritional science caused him to wonder whether it was down to the foods they ate – rather than, as people might have believed just a few decades earlier, some innate racial difference. These German foods included things like cheese and tomatoes, ingredients that Ikeda hadn’t encountered in Japan but that he tried for the first time in Germany.

Ikeda noticed the similarity of these new foods to the flavours of home. Just what was it, Ikeda wondered, that tickled the tastebuds when a Japanese person ate dashi and when a German person ate some aged cheese? It felt like the same thing, and yet it felt like science lacked an understanding of it.

Ikeda was to coin the term umami for this elusive fifth flavour, which he believed should sit alongside the traditional four flavours of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The word “umami” is difficult to translate – hence our borrowing of it into English – but means something like “savoury deliciousness”. If umami could be harnessed and extracted, Ikeda believed, it could be used to make nutritious-but-boring food palatable, thus improving the health of the masses:

“I read an article by Dr. Hiizu Miyake… in which he explained that good taste promotes food digestion. I was also one of those concerned about the nation’s malnutrition, and I had been thinking for a long time about how we could help, but could not come up with a good idea. However, after reading this article, I concluded that creating good and inexpensive seasonings and making meagre yet nourishing food delicious would be a way to achieve the goal.”

Returning to Japan and its wealth of umami-rich foods, in 1907 Ikeda set out to discover exactly what its source was. He started with kombu, the seaweed that is the foundation of dashi broths, which are known for their umami flavours. He discovered that the umami element of dashi was the result of glutamic acid, or glutamate, and set about trying to isolate it and reproduce it in a stable form. He eventually found that it was most stable and flavourful in the form of a salt, and monosodium glutamate was born. It was a white, crystalline powder, like table salt, that could be easily transported and was easy to use for home cooks.

Ikeda’s new salt could be added to any food, instantly boosting its umami flavour. It worked with foods that were particularly strong in free glutamates, so things like tomatoes, eggs, seafood and broccoli. And it succeeded in making nutritious food more tasty, helping to solve the problem of malnutrition in Japan.

The discovery that glutamates were the source of umami, and the creation of a stable glutamate seasoning in the form of MSG, was a complex recipe with lots of ingredients. It required the work of pioneering scientists who had begun to break proteins down into amino acids, and to discover that our diets gave us many invisible and previously undetectable nutrients beyond just the obvious protein, fat, carbohydrates and salt. It required the work of chefs who had begun to pull apart and improve the elements of taste. It required the work of nutritionists who had sought out ways to feed more people more nutritious food, solving problems of malnutrition that were emerging in the 19th century’s growing cities.

But until 1907, the recipe was missing one crucial ingredient: Ikeda. As someone who came from a culinary culture steeped in umami, who had scientific training, who was motivated by improving nutrition, and who had travelled outside Japan with an open mind, he was perfectly placed to make the connection he did. He was perhaps one of only a handful of people in the entire world at that time who would have asked, and could have answered, the questions he did about umami.

MSG’s discovery bridged the divides between cooking and chemistry; between tradition and modernity; between nature and science; and between Japan and the rest of the world. And the person that made that possible was Kikunae Ikeda.

Next in the series: Adoption, or the story of how MSG took over the world – starting in Japan.