When you start making your own soups and sauces, you may find they lack a certain umami — that taste that seems to bring completeness to your eating experience by bringing out the best in the other tastes. Why does ready made commercial food, though it can be so textureless and un-food-like, so often seem to have more zing? Why do so many of us who grew up on processed foods guiltily prefer them to healthier homemade foods?
Three letters: MSG.
Monosodium glutamate — you’ve seen the name on ingredient lists, and you most likely consume some of the substance every day, unless you’ve decided it gives you headaches. It has a somewhat deserved reputation for being overused by the food industry — especially in junk food — and by Chinese restaurants. It can be a cheap and easy way to intensify food flavor, and so it can also be a crutch for lazy or unimaginative cooks. Or it can be an added touch that brings out flavor that’s already there.
What is MSG? Though it sounds like a synthetic food additive, it’s a naturally occurring sodium salt. It comes from glutamic acid, an amino acid that’s also present in our bodies. (This has nothing to do with gluten, by the way.)
The Japanese professor who defined umami early in the 20th century discovered MSG in the same process. He also figured out how to extract it from seaweed broth so it could be sold as a seasoning. Today it’s “produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses”, according to the FDA.
You can buy MSG, in powder form, in the spice section at your supermarket, or possibly in the bulk bins, like other seasonings. You can also buy products (such as Accent “Meat Tenderizer”) that are mostly MSG. If you’re putting instant soup and other mixes in your cooking, you’re doing it mainly for the MSG anyway, so why not just go to the source?
The secret is to use it with a light touch. Although MSG has been ruled safe by the FDA — the average meal doesn’t contain enough of it to cause any effects — there are people who say it gives them headaches and nausea, and research has been inconclusive. What’s certain is that you can get too used to it, spoiling your taste for simple, unadorned foods.
If you don’t want to use MSG at all, alternatives are soy sauce, Worcestershire, anchovy paste, and many more, especially fermented foods — just check the ingredient list first, because MSG can and does turn up everywhere.