We here at MSGdish love recounting the story of Dr. Kikunae Ikeda’s original discovery of the little crystals that would one day became known as MSG (monosodium glutamate). While Ikeda certainly did not invent the umami taste– it has been in the foods of many cultures for centuries– he was the first to distill the crystallized form of umami so that it could be used in an even wider variety of foods! You see, before Dr. Ikeda, there was no simple way to sprinkle pure umami seasoning on food.
As Sarah Lohman writes in her book Eight Flavors, Dr. Ikeda originally mass produced glutamic acid the same way he first found it in his kitchen, by boiling seaweed and allowing the water to dry which left the crystals behind. Glutamate is a natural part of protein-containing foods such as meat, vegetables, poultry and milk. It is found in two forms: “bound” glutamate which is linked to protein, and “free” glutamate which is not linked to protein. Only free glutamate improves the flavor of food, but it has to be separated out from the rest of the amino acids in that food. Today, that is done by fermenting glutamate rich foods, most notably, “starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses.” Fermentation is a natural process used to make beer, some varieties of cheese, pickles, and “yogurt, vinegar and wine,” as is written on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s page about MSG.
So that explains the glutamate portion of monosodium glutamate. What about the “mono sodium?”
Stick with me here, it’s going to get a little technical.
Free glutamate, once unbounded from glutamic acid, cannot withstand all the pressures of a standard consumer seasoning– such as the constant temperature changes that are just part of shelf life stability. So that glutamate is bounded to one – mono – sodium molecule.
Once the etymology is broken down, it’s clear to see that monosodium glutamate is a term that is the sum of its parts, familiar molecules that are in our everyday life.
And if you’re looking for MSG – aka umami seasoning – in the grocery store, you’ll find it in the spices/seasonings section. Popular brands include Ac’cent, Ajinomoto, and Vedan.