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How the ancient Romans made MSG

Illustration for article titled How the ancient Romans made MSG

Monosodium glutamate is a food additive that enhances flavor. Although it's frowned upon today, the ancient Romans loved it and ate it with almost every meal.

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There's been some debate over what exactly monosodium glutamate does to people. Some people say it gives them severe headaches, numbness, weakness, and even heart palpitations. Scientists could confirm that it does give some people short-lived reactions, but no tests showed that it had long-term health effects. Some say that it's an addictive substance which causes people to crave it repeatedly if they try it too often. Others say it's just a flavor enhancer, and people crave it because it makes things taste better.

The chemical is listed as 'safe' by the FDA, although they do require it to be clearly listed as an additive in any food product that uses it. It's most often found in canned soups and vegetables. Modern MSG is manufactured using genetically engineered bacteria. They take in nutrients and excrete glutamic acid. The acid is concentrated, and sodium is added to make the final product.

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The process sounds very modern, but MSG has been around for a very long time. It was a common food additive during the time of ancient Rome, added to almost all Roman dishes. The Romans had a lot of technology for their time, but they couldn't genetically engineer bacteria. So how did they come up with MSG? Believe it or not, they used an even more disgusting process than bacteria excretions. The Romans had a fish paste called garum that they exported everywhere. They made it by filling pots with alternating layers of fish - or just fish guts - and salt and letting those pots lie out in the sun for a while.

As the mixture lay out in the sun, the stomach acids for the fish ate through their bodies. They eventually broke down the entire fish, turning the whole thing into a dark brown oily goo. When protein is broken down, the amino acid chains in the protein are freed up. One of these acid chains contains glutamic acid, which meets up with sodium from the salt and forms MSG. The Romans were such fans of the flavor enhancer that they even put it in sweets like custard. They also died off in droves, so anyone who wishes to recreate garum Roman-style — don't do it. Try organizing gladiator-style games in the back yard as a safer alternative.

Via Truth in Labeling, The Mayo Clinic, and About.com.

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DISCUSSION

Lots of foods are naturally high in glutamic acid: cheese, tomatoes, kelp, most seafood, mushrooms, etc. It's the chemical that activates the "umami" taste component in food.

While you do a great job of making garum sound disgusting and dangerous, the process is *very* similar to how Southeast Asian fish sauce is made. Fish sauce is delicious and I imagine a lot of people who eat Thai and Vietnamese food are perfectly safe and not dying off in droves.

Generally, IO9's science reporting is better than this irrational (and borderline racist*) misinformation. MSG is safe. People who claim to have MSG allergies have been shown in blind tests to not react to MSG when they are fed MSG without being told.

The whole idea that there is anything wrong with MSG is just false, but really good job making something completely safe seem dangerous and scary.

* MSG panic started as a reaction to the arrival of Chinese food in America and was often a euphemistic way to talk about Chinese immigration and used as a way to perpetuate the idea that Asians are "sneaky" and "dangerous."