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If you follow food trends, you've probably heard of umami. It's that savory fifth taste, in addition to bitter, sour, sweet and salty, and it's become a sought-after flavor in the culinary scene. Not quite so beloved is the umami additive, monosodium glutamate - or MSG, as it's more popularly known. For decades, it's been vilified, maligned, and, some say misunderstood. Natasha Geiling has written a history of MSG for Smithsonian magazine's Food and Think blog. She joins us in our Washington studios. Thanks for being with us, Natasha.

NATASHA GEILING: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, I think it might surprise a lot of people that MSG has actually been around for over a century. Can you tell us how it was discovered?

GEILING: Yes. So, it was discovered by a Japanese chemist. As the legend goes, he was sitting one night over a bowl of dashi that his wife made him, which is a seaweed sort of soup prevalent in Japanese cuisine. And he thought why is it that my taste buds taste something meaty in this but there's no meat in it? And he decided to go into his lab and try to isolate whatever gave it this meaty flavor. So, he managed to isolate this seaweed compound and kind of evaporated it down to the point where he saw a crystalline form develop. And when he tasted that crystalline form, put it on his tongue, he tasted it, he recognized the sort of meaty taste that he'd been tasting. He had dubbed it umami, which comes from umai in Japanese - means delicious.

MARTIN: So, there you go. Things went really well for MSG for a while, then in 1968 - you write specifically - something changed.

GEILING: 1968 was really the pivot point for MSG. Before that, you could find it kind of anywhere and people probably remember having some of the powder in their cooking cabinets before that. And then in 1968, a Chinese-American doctor, Dr. Kwok, wrote in to the New England Journal of Medicine and said that when I eat Chinese food, I have noticed less-than-desirable symptoms that occur; tightening of skin, kind of heart palpitations and sort of feeling flushed. And the editor has actually deemed it Chinese restaurant syndrome.

MARTIN: There are entire websites devoted to the idea that it has all these negative health effects. What's the truth? What does the research say?

GEILING: The general scientific consensus seems to be that on an empty stomach and very large quantities, there is a small subset of the population that shows really sensitivity to MSG.

MARTIN: After writing this, do you eat more or less Chinese food?

GEILING: You know, pretty much exactly the same. Loved it before. Still love it now.

MARTIN: Natasha Geiling. She wrote about MSG for Smithsonian magazine. She joined us in our studios here. Natasha, thanks for coming in.

GEILING: Yeah, thanks so much.


MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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