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(article, Caroline Cummins)

Jeffrey Steingarten pointed this out a few years back in his book It Must've Been Something I Ate, but now the New York Times is beating the same salty drum: monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, does not give you headaches or "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" or any other genuine physical trauma.

Discovered a century ago by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, MSG is a salty form of glutamic acid, itself a type of amino acid (the building blocks of protein). Glutamic acid occurs naturally in all those foods described as having an umami flavor: seaweed, mushrooms, cheese, soy sauce, ketchup. But, as the Japanese were quick to discover, you can also "free" the glutamic acid in the factory and turn it into a salty powder. 

As Dr. Nuripa Chaudhari of the University of Miami told the New York Times, “Just like salt and sugar, it exists in nature, it tastes good at normal levels, but large amounts at high concentrations taste strange and aren’t that good for you."

Zak Pelaccio, a New York chef, added, “Too much MSG and you get that harsh, acrid taste. But get it just right and that dish will sing.”

So has MSG — controversial for decades — finally been rehabilitated? Not really; despite years of studies failing to show any traceable side effects, plenty of folks (including such scientific experts as the University of Florida's Linda Bartoshuk) believe the stuff is dangerous. It is, after all, a generic white powder made in a factory — not exactly a whole food. And, as Julia Moskin pointed out in the Times, MSG is all around us, in disguise:

bq. Since the 1970s, MSG has sidled back onto American supermarket shelves, under assumed names: hydrolyzed proteins, yeast extracts, protein concentrates, and other additives that are not labeled as MSG but, according to nutritionists and the USDA, are essentially the same thing: synthetically produced glutamates. The whey protein concentrate and liquid aminos that many Americans buy at health-food stores are also, essentially, pure glutamate.

Worried about synthetic glutamates? Don't buy processed products — or better yet, buy only those processed in traditional ways, such as Parmesan cheese or soy sauce.