A Question of Taste

The New York Times has an interesting article today on the flavor enhancer MSG. I’m sure we’ve all tried to avoid the substance, eating at oriental restuarants that are MSG-free, presumably due to bad reactions such as headaches. However, the article makes it clear that whether or not they add MSG directly, many food products contain it naturally, and it is hidden behind such phrases as “hydrolyzed soy protein”, “autolyzed yeast”. It shows up in canned chicken broth, packs of onion soup mix, cheese Goldfish crackers, and low-fat yogurts. It is the taste of Marmite in the United Kingdom, of Golden Mountain sauce in Thailand, of Goya Sazón on the Latin islands of the Caribbean, of Salsa Lizano in Costa Rica and of Kewpie mayonnaise in Japan. And yet, we all still seem to avoid MSG, thinking it gives us headaches (even though that has never been proven).


It is probably something similar to the placebo effect. This brings to mind the recent report that more expensive placebos bring better relief than cheap placebos. In the reported survey, 85% of those using the expensive pills reported significant pain relief, compared with 61% on the cheaper pills. I’m sure this extends to our view of politics, where candidates are often just different priced placebos.

Anyway, back to MSG. It (glutimate) is evidently a distinct taste from salty, sweet, etc., and evidently rounds out the taste of food (and evidently covers us weaknesses of poor quality food). Perhaps this is why No-MSG restaurants are better: not because of the lack of MSG, but because they use better quality food that means they don’t need the MSG in the first place.

So what’s your relationship with MSG?