...What does chiefly animate Japanese soups and broths is an amino acid called glutamate. In the best ramen shops it's made naturally from boiling dried kombu seaweed; it can also come from dried shrimp or bonito flakes, or from fermented soy. More cheaply and easily, you get it from a tin, where it is stabilised with ordinary salt and is thus monosodium glutamate...Anybody who has suffered through biochemistry knows that glutamate is a thoroughly natural compound, something we eat in large quantities in foods containing proteins, and one that we are capable of synthesizing on our own should our diet be deficient in it. While it's certainly not true that natural compounds can't be harmful, for one that we routinely metabolize in such large amounts to be harmful seems to be a stretch. I never worried about MSG. So how did it become anathema to American cuisine?
But MSG's conquest of the planet hit a major bump in April 1968, when, in the New England Journal of Medicine, a Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a chatty article, not specifically about MSG, whose knock-on effects were to panic the food industry. 'I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations...'So, basically, if you form MSG up into a bat, and whack newborn mice with it, it can harm them? Whoda thunk?
And so was born Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) and a medico-academic industry dedicated to the researching and publicising of the dangers of MSG - the foreign migrant contaminating American kitchens. Shortly after Dr Ho came Dr John Olney at Washington University, who in 1969 injected and force-fed newborn mice with huge doses of up to four grams/kg bodyweight of MSG. He reported that they suffered brain lesions and claimed that the MSG found in just one bowl of tinned soup would do the same to the brain of a two-year-old.
Science has still not found a convincing explanation for CRS: indeed, some researchers suggest it may well be to do with the other things diners have imbibed there - peanuts, shellfish, large amounts of lager. Others say that fear of MSG is a form of mass psychosis - you suffer the symptoms you've been told to worry about.I'm going with the mass psychosis explanation. But there were side benefits, if you can call them that.
The fact is that, since the eighties, mainstream science has got bored of MSG. Some research continues; in 2002, for example, New Scientist got very excited over a report that MSG might damage your eyesight, after Japanese scientists announced that they had produced retinal thinning in baby rats fed with MSG. It turned out they were putting 20 grams of MSG in every 100g of rat food - an amazing amount, given that, in the UK, we adults consume about four grams of it each a week. (One project took people who were convinced their asthma was caused by MSG and fed them up to six grams of it a day, without ill-effects). However, at no time has any official body, governmental or academic, ever found it necessary to warn humans against consuming MSG.
MSG has had one unarguable effect on us - and it is a benign one. It has made consumers look at the small print. In turn this kick-started the organic food movement and other, more militant consumer power groups. 1968 was a good year for rebels, and the dawn of MSG-phobia coincides with the beginning of a great shift in middle-class consumers' thinking - a withdrawal of our faith in the vast corporations that fed and medicated us. After 1968 we began to question them and their motives. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace came next.