Part of the series The Story of MSG

The Story of MSG: Redemption

Are the foundations of the MSG scare beginning to crumble?

Previously in this series: Controversy, or how the MSG scare began.

Despite the controversy, set off by the Kwok letter in 1968, some people never stopped using MSG. It remained a staple of both Asian home cooks, Asian restaurants, and many mass-produced foods. (Peep the ingredients list on a pipe of Pringles some time.) But the misconceptions around MSG pushed it to the sidelines, and made a majority of people suspicious of it.

This anti-MSG sentiment rested on two pillars. The first was a suspicion of artificiality and “chemicals”, set off in part by the scandals around DDT and Agent Orange. And the second was a suspicion of Asian cuisine that meant the public was all too ready to believe that Chinese food caused illness.

But if those two pillars weakened, so too might the scare that they were supporting. And by the late 1990s and early 2000s, cracks were definitely starting to appear. A re-evaluation of MSG was underway. But what caused it? Why, after almost forty years, did public and professional opinion begin to shift?

In 1969, the Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti hosted a lecture for the Royal Society called The Physicist in the Kitchen. “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilisation,” Kurti said, “that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.” Kurti was the first person to apply modern methods of physics and chemistry to cooking. He did so in a playful way that captured the imaginations of both chefs and the public, making adventurous dishes like a “reverse Baked Alaska” (a frozen meringue exterior enveloping a centre of piping hot booze) and a vacuum-pumped meringue of staggering size.

Kurti was playing with his food. His lectures were a series of parlour tricks, delivered to a scientifically literate audience. But Kurti was serious about applying scientific methods to cooking techniques, and he had unlocked a new way of looking at what we ate – one that a generation was to find inspiring.

Those that saw the world differently following Kurti included scientists like Hervé This, chefs such as Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal, cookery teachers like Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas, and science writers like Harold McGee. They formed a loose movement, exploring what became known as “molecular gastronomy”, and together they moved beyond Kurti’s lecture-theatre demonstrations to a more systemic and thorough examination of the science of food. How did established cooking techniques work to produce flavour and texture, and could chemistry show us how to improve them? How did humans perceive flavour, and could biology and neuroscience teach us how to manipulate those perceptions?

In their explorations of flavour, one of the ingredients that the molecular gastronomists experimented with was MSG. It was inevitable, in a way: the science on which its rejection was based was too shaky, and its role in boosting flavour too powerful, for them to ignore it. Harold McGee explained the usefulness of MSG in his 1984 book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. In Nathan Myhrvold’s epic, six-volume Modernist Cuisine – which pioneered the use of sous vide machines and centrifuges in cooking – MSG is used liberally in everything from pizza sauce to Myhrvold’s attempt to reverse-engineer the KFC colonel’s secret recipe.

And so now MSG is used as an ingredient at Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, and Grant Achatz says that his three “kitchen staples” are salt, MSG, and black pepper. “If you gave me those three items,” he said, “I can make anything taste good – even dessert.”

The molecular gastronomists embraced MSG because they were more conscious than anyone that a boundary between “synthetic” and “natural” is impossible to draw. They didn’t care whether something was a white powder or had a scientific-sounding name: they cared about whether it tasted good. And while molecular gastronomy was perhaps short-lived as a restaurant fad, its evidence-based influence was lasting. Chefs are no longer content to be ignorant of the scientific processes that undergird their cooking techniques. They want to know why things work, and knowing how umami works leads to using MSG. The science pillar supporting the MSG scare was beginning to crack.

Meanwhile, new generations of Asian people in Europe and the USA were asserting their place, and the place of their cooking, in an increasingly diverse society. Chinese food in the west had grown far beyond its origins in dim sum restaurants, provincial takeaways, and all-you-can-eat buffets. Cantonese people had been the first Chinese people to take their food abroad, and Cantonese cuisine dominated most early western Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants. By the 1990s and 2000s, though, it was increasingly common to see not just Cantonese restaurants but also food from Sichuan, Fujian, and Hunan – and not just in large cities like London and New York, either. Sweet, gloopy sauces that had been adapted for unadventurous western palates gave way to subtler and more authentic flavours. It was becoming increasingly difficult – and increasingly uncommon – for people to hold the bigoted view that Asian food was in any way inferior.

In the UK, nobody embodied – or encouraged – that change more than Alan Yau. In 1992 he started the restaurant chain Wagamama, which introduced Brits to yakisoba, chahan and katsu curry, adding Japanese dishes into a repertoire that had previously been limited mostly to Chinese and Indian dishes. It was the first nationwide Asian food chain, and with nationwide chain status comes both a slickness of service and certain expectations of safety. Unadventurous eaters, who might have shied away from these dishes in a more authentic setting, found themselves slurping ramen and chomping on tori karaage with abandon. The formula worked; there are now 172 Wagamamas on high streets and in shopping centres up and down the country.

After selling his stake in Wagamama in 1997, Yau turned his attentions to fine dining with the opening of Hakkasan in 2001. “I wanted to prove I could do fine dining with Chinese food,” Yau said. “When I first showed the plans to my Chinese bank manager, he said, ‘My friend, why would people spend double the money down piss alley on Chinese food when they can go to Chinatown?’” And yet it worked; reviews were rave from the opening, and Hakkasan won a Michelin star in 2003, two years after opening. “Until Alan Yau opened Hakkasan,” the food critic Jay Rayner wrote back in 2007, “rarely were the words ‘Chinese food’ and ‘glamour’ uttered in the same sentence.”

Yau’s developments sparked a similar shift across the pond. In 2004, Korean-American chef David Chang was inspired by visiting both Wagamama in London and ramen bars in Japan. He brought a combination of both to New York, opening a noodle bar called Momofuku. It was casual and cool, and popular with New Yorkers; before long there were more, and Chang made the Wagamama-to-Hakkasan leap into fine dining with the two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko.

Chang used his newfound culinary fame to attempt to change the narrative around MSG. Speaking at René Redzepi’s MAD conference in 2012, Chang said:

“There have been many [studies] that try to prove that MSG creates this Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. There’s no evidence at all. In fact, everything supports that it’s psychosomatic.

“We serve a lot of Asian ingredients and people say ‘Oh, I can’t eat your food because there’s soy sauce in it.’ But they’re happy… eating a plate of pasta with tomatoes and Parmesan cheese [full of] glutamic acid… And the only difference between that and artificially made MSG is they add one molecule of sodium so they can disperse the glutamic acid. Your body digests and breaks down glutamic acid in the same way as one would eat a bag of Doritos or anything else.”

With Asian cuisines’ credentials proved to all but the most bigoted of audiences, the power of stereotypes was weakened. If one of the reasons people believed in the myth of MSG being harmful was that it played to stereotypes about Asian food, then the eroding of those stereotypes began to erode the case against MSG. It was harder for white people in Europe and America to be suspicious of an Asian ingredient after they became regulars at Wagamama and Momofuku – after Asian cuisine became exciting, rather than intimidating. And so the anti-Asian sentiment pillar began to crumble too.

The question is, will this renaissance make it through to the mainstream? It was relatively easy to convince the public in the 1960s that a foreign food ingredient was the cause of an ailment – that, if they felt a little queasy after overeating, it was MSG’s fault. It’s much harder, after an idea has had nearly sixty years to settle itself into peoples’ consciousnesses, to unseat it. As the science writer Christie Aschwanden has said, simply exposing people to correct information isn’t enough to change their minds once they believe something false.

Perhaps what will happen is – as it was with many other social attitudes, from race relations to gay marriage – that attitudes will change with the generations. If you’re under 40 and a foodie, the chances are you spent your formative food-exploring years idolising chefs like David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, and Heston Blumenthal. You probably find it utterly natural to cook and eat not just Chinese food but Japanese, Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese food too. The idea that MSG is bad is an ancient and fuzzy one, that belongs to past generations. And so you end up using MSG, joining the people who never stopped. And in doing so you slowly, in your own small way, help to right a historical wrong – and help to create a world that tastes a little better.