So, a few of my recipes call for Monosodium Glutimate, AKA MSG or in Chinese Weijing. I always note that it IS optional, but I get a lot of questions about why I use it at all, usually with the implication that MSG is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad substance.
First of all, what is MSG? MSG is a taste enhancer made (at least the ajinomoto brand that I buy) of fermented corn. Yes, it is extracted through chemistry, but then again, so is table salt and refined sugar. Fermented corn doesn't seem that terrifying to me.
MSG enhances umami flavor. Umami is considered the fifth flavor, and finally getting recognized. There is sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, or as my dad describes it "Protinaceous." Basically that indescribably flavor found in roasting meats as well as many mushrooms. It's not sweet, not salty, not sour, not bitter. It's umami.
In the same way that a tiny sprinkling of salt can be almost unnoticed, but really bring out the flavor of a dish, MSG does the same.
MSG, like sugar, naturally occurs in LOTS of foods. In fact, the first MSG was naturally taken from a japanese seaweed, kombu. I use that seaweed in soups sometimes. It's delicious. In fact, MSG occurs naturally in so many foods and in such quantities that the FDA stopped food companies from labelling foods "No MSG" or "No Added MSG" because it was there anyway!
Some people claim to have reactions to MSG, however the vast majority are simply convincing themselves of the effect, as many scientific studies have shown. One of my friends claims to have severe reactions to it, although she didn't tell me this for a long time and ate several of my dishes with MSG with no reaction at all. For full details on the health effects and scientific studies on MSG, check here.
The short story is there, there have been no noticable or scientifically reproducable effects beyond that of placebo for reasonable amounts of MSG mixed into foods. And let's be honest, that sounds a lot like what we say for salt.
Are there medical downsides to MSG? Surely. Some studies indicate that it may be connected to obesity, but so is sugar and salt is connected to high blood pressure.
In short, like any other condiment, MSG is just fine when used within reason. Since most of my recipes call for a pinch or small sprinkling of MSG, I like to think that I and my food consumers will be alright.
Of course, feel free to disagree and feel free not to add MSG to your food. I like it, not everyone does.
But when it comes to danger, I think we should all be worried about my obsession with Chili.