Mention MSG and many consumers conjure up bad images of the dreaded "Chinese restaurant syndrome." For brand marketers, this can pose a major dilemma in the development of new products. On one hand, MSG, or monosodium glutamate, can make foods taste great. On the other, the negative perception from consumers may mean huge barriers to the successful marketing of any product with the ingredient.
The "perception" difficulties in using MSG as a flavor enhancer in food products may soon be resolved. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology is expected to release a report soon that may, at long last, dispel long-standing "myths" about MSG and open up opportunities for manufacturers and marketers to use MSG in their products without worry of consumer backlash.
In truth, MSG has a long and successful history behind it. In the early 1900s, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda from the University of Tokyo was studying the flavor enhancement effects from certain seaweeds. Traditionally, seaweeds have been used to enhance the flavor of soups and other high-protein foods. Ikeda isolated and identified MSG from a type of seaweed that was commonly used by Japanese chefs to enhance flavor. Research showed that the enhancement did not effect the four basic tastes which are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. In certain foods, however, it did produce a distinct flavor character that may be called a fifth taste. This fifth taste, also known as "umami" in Japanese, is best described as well-rounded, delicious and savory -- attributes that are unique to MSG.
MSG is a soluble salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid that is naturally occurring in all proteins. When the MSG dissolves, the glutamate is in a free form. It is only in this free form that MSG enhances flavor. This free glutamate is found naturally in foods at varying levels, such as in tomatoes, parmesan cheese and peas. These foods are considered flavor enhancers in their own right because they contain fairly high levels of free glutamate.
The Food and Drug Administration declares MSG as generally recognized as safe, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the use of MSG to flavor meats and poultry in amounts sufficient for that purpose. Still, safety questions regarding MSG have persisted for decades. The public thinks MSG is bad, but the data does not exist to support this poor image.
In fact, it has been found that free glutamate from MSG is absorbed into the human body the same way that natural free glutamate in foods is absorbed. Furthermore, free glutamate in foods consumed by the public far outweighs the quantity of MSG that is consumed.
If the MSG controversy can finally be put to rest, perhaps everyone's MSG marketing "headache" also will go away. Then developers and marketers can use this versatile ingredient to make their products taste even better. Which, of course, keeps customers coming back for more.
Phil Katz is president of the Food and Pharmaceutical Division of Herbert V. Shuster Inc., a consumer products R&D and testing firm with facilities in Quincy, Mass., and Atlanta.