About 30 students and faculty sampled chips, cured meats, sun-dried tomatoes and cheese to experience the fifth taste sensation, umami, Tuesday night.
The taste test was part of a lecture by Sarah Tracy, an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Women and Institute for Society and Genetics, about the history and societal perceptions of Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG.
MSG is a chemical component that contributes to the savory, meat-like umami taste. The talk was hosted by the Center for the Study of Women.
Although people stigmatize MSG as unhealthy, Tracy said research has not led to a universal agreement on whether it has negative effects on health.
MSG is extracted from seaweed, wheat, soy or corn. Food manufacturers started using it as an additive after they discovered it improved the taste of food and increased troops’ morale in World War II.
“It was a scientific antidote to diminished quality in food production,” Tracy said.
Tracy said MSG is commonly used in processed foods, such as instant noodles, to make them taste better. It can also occur naturally in foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms and breast milk.
Audience members described the MSG taste as addictive, savory, pungent, smooth and happy.
“It’s not only how does it taste, but how does it make you feel?” said Vanessa Nurock, a visiting associate philosophy researcher who attended the lecture.
Though the audience members enjoyed the taste, Tracy said MSG has a negative perception in society.
Tracy said many Westerners associate MSG with cheap Chinese food, which she thinks leads to a racial and xenophobic fear of the additive as a toxin. She said the fear became known as Chinese-restaurant syndrome, in which people attributed dizziness, numbness and nausea to MSG.
“It’s strange; I’ve never heard of umami before until I came to America,” said Kyoko Kawaguchi, a visiting research journalist from Japan. “Still, I don’t understand why there’s so much fear about something that occurs naturally in foods in Western culture.”
Tracy said she thinks people vilify MSG and say it causes migraines, obesity, acne and even Alzheimer’s and autism. Some people advocate against eating foods with MSG and demand that companies label packaging for food that contains the chemical compound. They call it a toxin and cite research that indicates MSG causes neurodegenerative disease.
For example, one study concluded that mice injected with MSG suffered from brain tissue damage, seizures and emotional change.
Tracy said these negative stigmas motivate some restaurants to claim their food is MSG-free.
However, the Food and Drug Administration states that MSG is safe, and researchers haven’t had consistent results that show it is harmful. The study involving MSG in mice, for example, was criticized by other researchers for injections of MSG that were much higher than normal human consumption.
“Pleasurable foods are often thought to have adverse effects on your body,” Tracy said. “But it’s hard for us to be critical of something that makes you happy.”
Tracy said she strives for a more balanced view of the compound as possibly unhealthy, but not universally intolerable.
“I want people to come away with a more provocative and nuanced take on MSG,” Tracy said.