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I'll Never See Food the Same Way After Living On MSG For a Week

I decided to incorporate MSG into everything I ate for a week. It wasn't all bad, but I felt like shit.
April 22, 2014, 6:23pm
Photo by Sean Morrow

I grew up in a toxin-free household. My dad worked in the health food industry and my mom was intent on making sure that we avoided our sodium lauryl sulfates and our fluorides. And yeah, sure, I understand that: Why put 'chemicals' (using the word 'chemicals' like someone who tries to keep things all-natural would use it, not in the literal way as in the basic building blocks of the universe) in your body if you don't have to?

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So as soon as I left the nest, I went hog wild on a diet of nitrates, aspartame, and tap water, revelling in that which was once forbidden, like a priest's daughter drinking half a handle and fucking the entire lacrosse team. For me, it was the nitrate-ridden hot dogs and diarrhea-inducing aspartame gum instead of booze and dicks. But more than anything, my favorite toxin has always been MSG.

An abbreviation of the chemical name 'makes stuff good' (or 'monosodium glutamate') was invented in Japan in 1908 when a food scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, was fucking around with some seaweed and was like, "Damn this tastes good," and then continued to do food alchemy to it until it was in its purest form: A crystalline white powder. It was so good that he named an entire taste after it. Not a flavor, an entire fucking taste, like sweet or salty. And it's a taste you've probably heard of too: 'Umami' pretty much means 'tastes like MSG.' If you like umami, you like MSG. Glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid that the body actually needs and uses, but the synthetic form that's found in MSG produces a kind that is not found in nature—a.k.a. the freaky stuff. According to a recent study, MSG has a tendency to overstimulate cells to death (you can take 'overstimulate cells' to mean 'be so tasty it explodes nuclei') which can result in headaches, diarrhea, and fibromyalgia. Then again, there are others that claim that it's totally harmless.

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MSG is in much of the food in American supermarkets, but it's still treated as if it's poison by people who don't realize just how much of it they eat every day. So I took on the task of putting it in all of my meals for a week. I was a little worried because I had never sampled this quantity in my life. I figured that acquiring such a hazardous material would be difficult, but quickly discovered it hanging out in my local supermarket. It's very cheap, about $2.49 for a near infinite amount of servings (you're only supposed to use ⅛ tsp for a pound of meat.)

Photo by Sean Morrow

All photos by the author.

I tried a little on it's own: It's gross. And that's OK, because it's not supposed to be good. It's a flavor enhancer; it just brings out the flavors that are already there. I started carrying a container of it with me wherever I went like an addict, checking for 'phone, keys, wallet, MSG,' every time I left the house. When you offer people at the office, in bars, or at brunch "a little MSG with that," you'll get a confused and disgusted "no," which can either be traced back to the unfair stigma that MSG has, or that people consider it weird if you carry a little vial of crystals around with you no matter what they are.

I whipped up a little MSG vinaigrette and a regular one; I needed a control sample because this is a totally legitimate scientific study. I drizzled both over some kale. I took a bite of the regular dressing. It was alright, but nothing special. Then I tried the MSG-laden greens. Incredible! It had an entirely different flavor profile and had a much deeper flavor to it. I devoured the whole salad. When I returned to the non-MSG salad, it tasted way worse than it had tasted before I had sampled the MSG salad. Having a little bit of MSG Parmesan vinaigrette had made me crave more, and I had an insatiable hunger for MSG, like when you eat human flesh and then crave more and more.

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The same week I started my MSG challenge, I also found out that it's very easy to make your own butter, so I made my own with a bunch of MSG in it. It was excellent, but it was also my first time attempting to make it on my own, so I can't attest to how much better it was. I ended up throwing the powder into cocktails, take-out, and anything else that I was putting into my mouth. I enhanced a health food chip that bragged 'no-MSG' by sprinkling a ton of MSG in the bag, and noticed a significant uptick in its nacho 'cheese' flavor. A crock pot roast recipe I made called for the addition of condensed mushroom soup and powdered onion soup mix, so I made a version with real mushrooms, real onions, and a ton of MSG (what my delicious fresh vegetables were missing). The flavor of the mushrooms really stood out, and the cheap cut of meat I used was incredibly tender.

I even added some to my favorite cocktail: a version of a Gibson with a splash of pickle juice. I had to wait for the bartender to turn around because they're usually so not cool with people pouring powdered substances into their drinks. My friends all thought it was weird at first, but after they had a sip and liked what they tasted, we were all secretly slipping MSG into our drinks for the rest of the night. I knew from experience that MSG'd beer was bad, but it didn't stop my dumb friends from trying it.

Photo by Sean Morrow

Don't try this at home, kids.

Throughout my week of the white powder, the only two things that were made truly terrible with MSG were a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a yogurt parfait. It's just not meant for sweet stuff.

During that time of experimentation, I didn't notice any adverse health effects, I never felt the supposed 'Chinese Food Syndrome' other than a headache one morning, but I'd also been drinking the previous night because I'm a terrible scientist, so I don't know if it was a booze or an MSG hangover. But only 36 hours after I went off the week-long diet, I started to feel flu-like pains, extreme fatigue, and appetite loss. I wondered, Was this MSG withdrawal? Was I not hungry because the food I had in front of me wasn't alchemically made more delicious by that most magical white powder?

I went 18 long years without MSG, outside of the occasional snack bag of chips, I'm happy to have this mana of flavor in my life. It made me feel a little shitty after eating so much of it, but I also could have been just having a forced psychosomatic response like so many other 'food sensitivities.'

Or maybe I just had a hangover.