Modern Commentary

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Monosodium Glutamate  

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer that is commonly found in commercially prepared frozen dinners, snacks, spice mixes, soups, casseroles, etc.  MSG is also sold to as a general purpose seasoning.

MSG was originally isolated in 1908 as the component, specifically glutamic acid, in kombu seaweed that was responsible for the flavor enhancing properties of dashi, the Japanese broth made with kombu that forms the basis of Japanese cuisine.  MSG is now synthetically produced from a fermentation process of starch and molasses.  The end product is a pure, white, crystalline form of MSG, much more concentrated than what is naturally occurring in kombu.

In its bound form, when it is linked with other amino acids to form proteins, glutamic acid does not provide any special flavor enhancing benefits.  It is only in its free form, unbound to amino acids, that its flavor enhancing properties and potential risks arise.  Free glutamic acid occurs naturally at low levels in foods such as soy sauce, kombu seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese.  Cooks have traditionally used these foods as ingredients in recipes to help enhance flavors without any serious side effects.  In contrast, pure, concentrated forms of free glutamic acid as present in synthetic MSG have been shown to cause serious reactions in sensitive individuals.

Given that MSG is derived, in part, from molasses, it is tame', and therefore forbidden to consume.  Some might be concerned that the loose term "natural flavors," often present on food labels might hide the presence of MSG; however, by law foods purchased from grocery stores must be labeled as containing MSG if they contain concentrated, isolated MSG.