Vietnamese Pho With No Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)? Sure You Want It That Way?

We call it monosodium glutamate or just sodium glutamate. The Japanese invented (found it in nature actually) and call it umami, for "good flavor" or "good taste."MSG in red cup

Many people have problems with consuming monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in their foods. Chinese cuisine and many other restaurant foods are notorious for having lots of MSG in them. Restaurant pho is no different. In fact MSG use in many pho restaurants is so prominent and unmistakable that you can literally taste it instead of the flavorful pho broth that it should be. While MSG exists naturally around us and its use is considered "safe" by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA,) the benefits or ill effects that it brings to human diners (and pho zealots!) remain quite controversial. We each have our own judgement, tolerance, and reaction to MSG but to get a broader understanding of its impact on our culinary experience, I've asked a few culinary industry masters to share their views on MSG and how they feel it should be used in our daily lives.

Pho broth in potsHere are some views on monosodium glutamate from 7 food industry experts. Five of them have extensive culinary experience in Asian foods, the other 2  brings to the "table" (no pun intended) a clear Western viewpoints of MSG use. At least one is a food scientist, and many are respected authors, educators and publishers in their own right. I point this out because, in my opinion, the discussion on MSG cannot omit the differentiation between western and eastern cooking philosophies. In fact, such differences may just explain why MSG receives such notoriety sometimes.

In alphabetical order, they are:

I hope you will find their comments and viewpoints interesting and educational as I did. We are all humans and have our own biases and personal preferences, but insights from professionals in their own fields like these on a semi-controversial subject like MSG is a worthwhile read and definitely a learning experience. You will find both extreme and more moderate points of view on this thing we call MSG or umami. My own notes or clarification, if any, are added in brackets [...] to the end of the experts' individual statements.

1. What are your views on MSG and its use in food preparation in general? Was its creation a blessing or curse to the culinary world?

Ajinomoto MSG 1lb bagDonna Bauck. Both a blessing AND a curse. As we all know many people are sensitive to it. In the “corporate” food world it is often banned. Corporations spend a great deal of time and money finding other ways to boost flavor, and I know some products are no longer used because they contain it. On the other hand, we all want to honor traditions AND cultures. In the case of  “America” we have often taken too many liberties in Americanizing foods. In the food industry, many of us realize we have lost the heart, soul, and flavor of many cultures' foods by doing this. What is the answer? I don’t think anyone has come up with a good one. [I think Ms. Bauck's latter point is that, in americanizing ethnic foods, we make changes to them (including taking out MSG) to the detrimental effect of the foods' authenticity and taste, which I totally agree with.]

Robert Danhi. Chef Danhi wrote passionately and extensively about the subject of MSG in his book Southeast Asian Flavors. With his permission, I'm quoting relevant paragraphs here.

... For years I’ve had an internal battle over whether to use monosodium glutamate (MSG) in my cooking. The struggle began more than a decade ago when I really began to understand Southeast Asian food. I avoided using it, since as a classically trained Western chef, I was taught it was cheating and unnecessary to achieve really good food (actually true). But the challenge is that the food I’ve loved so much when I’ve traveled tasted so different from what I would make in my kitchen stateside. I realized there was no question that the prevalent use of MSG in restaurants and by street vendors of Southeast Asia was a significant factor affecting the flavor. I have ventured into hundreds of kitchens in Southeast Asia over the past twenty years. Most use MSG in one form or another. I have decided to address what most cookbook authors avoid—the topic of monosodium glutamate...

... I do not recommend nor disapprove of its use. The reality is that a majority of the kitchens in Southeast Asia use it. In the U.S.A. “No MSG added” is a common restaurant claim. But while the cooks may not have added MSG in its pure form, they probably still use sauces that have it added at the factory. Many cooks exclaim they do not use MSG, but frankly many do not even realize that they do...

... I believe much of the modern-day use of MSG in the foods around Southeast Asia is a cost-cutting measure... ... That stated, MSG is a relative newcomer to Asian cookery, having been in use for just over one hundred years. Although I was not around two hundred years ago, I’m sure there were amazing, vibrant, flavorful foods long before MSG’s invention...

Andrea Nguyen. MSG is not a terrible thing but it’s [oftentimes] [overused] to make blah, poorly made food tasty. Umami is important in lots of Asian cooking but there are natural ways to achieve it. MSG is a chemical product. Who wants to add extra chemicals to their food? It’s not natural.

Brian Nguyen. MSG is a flavor enhancer. Until today, FDA and most, if not all, health officials from other countries have not banned of using MSG in foods. The chemical components of MSG are Sodium and Glutamic Acid. Glutamic Acid is an Amino Acid. Our body requires Amino Acid. However, our body can produce it, luckily. Without it, our foods would be very bland.

Florentina. MSG is simply not good for you. It might have been a blessing for the culinary world, but definitely a curse for me and you, the consumer.

Jay Terauchi. I don't use MSG in my cooking, unless it's an Asian packaged or canned product. I understand having to use it in processed foods, but I won't use it as a flavor enhancer.

Corinne Trang. In my Asian side of the family, we used it all the time. Some still do, but I don’t. It is unnecessary. Salt can open up your taste buds. Spices and herbs can enhance any foods, curing, heat cooking, etc... can do the same. There [are] so many ways to create beautiful flavors with fresh ingredients, why would anyone want to use MSG? It’s definitely a curse, and quite frankly it should be taken off the market.

2. How much, if any, do you use or recommend the use of MSG in any recipe?

Ajinomoto MSG nutrition factsDonna Bauck. I stay away from it as much as possible. There is no way of knowing if my customer base has sensitivity. Though I attempt to label any foods that I am aware of (just as you would for nuts,) I believe there is a growing population that does know if they are sensitive, [therefore] may steer away from foods labeled as such.

Robert Danhi. Don't use in recipes.

Andrea Nguyen. I don’t suggest using MSG in any of my recipes. I’m more intrigued by what natural glutamates do in food, how they make food taste good.

Brian Nguyen. Most food products contain naturally occured Glutamic Acid. However, during the cooking process, most of Glutamic Acid is destroyed by heat from over cooking. The amount of putting the MSG back into food varies. However, it should be much less than 1% in finished products.

Florentina. I do not use MSG in my cooking and I would never recommend it in a recipe.

Jay Terauchi. None.

Corinne Trang. Zero.

3. Are there certain dishes that you feel will always need at least some MSG?

Donna Bauck. I do not believe I am in the position to answer this. I do not use it, though I am sure I have eaten it. I have never studied the effects of a recipe with or without MSG.

Robert Danhi. [No.]

Andrea Nguyen. Nope. Some Viet people say that pho is not pho without MSG but that’s just because there is rampant use of it in pho. They are used to the ‘sweet’ flavor that MSG lends. Using yellow rock sugar makes that happen in pho broth.

Brian Nguyen. As I mentioned above, MSG is a flavor enhancer not a flavor. Most cooked dishes require MSG since it has been destroy[ed] by heat.

Florentina. Absolutely not. With all the spices we have available to us today, there is no need for MSG at all.

Jay Terauchi. I don't feel that but understand that most Asian dishes use it and that's what people know it to taste like that.

Corinne Trang. No.

4. With respect to pho, is MSG (at any quantity) an important ingredient? What about any other broths/soup dishes?

Ajinomoto MSG in small jarsDonna Bauck. Same answer as above. Additionally, though I have eaten pho, I could not answer from a cultural, or personal experience as to its importance.

Robert Danhi. Use lots of meat, enough fish sauce and long simmering to harness umami and no MSG is needed. [If you] can't afford the meat and time, add some MSG and broth will taste better.

Andrea Nguyen. See response to #3 above.

Brian Nguyen. The most important ingredient in Pho or any dishes is not MSG. MSG is not a primary ingredient. It is a secondary ingredient. It is there to enhance not to act as a flavor.

Florentina. I don't believe so. More people should try using sea salt and lots of aromatics to enhance the flavor of their meals.

Jay Terauchi. I think to give it the authentic flavor YES, otherwise I think it would lack the familiar flavor that people know.

Corinne Trang. MSG is not necessary in any food, including pho or other broths or soup dishes. Again my family has used [it] for sure, but I don’t see a good enough reason to add it to any of my meals.

5. The bottom line: would you enjoy a bowl of pho (homemade or restaurant) knowing that MSG was used?

Donna Bauck. Since I have eaten pho, in traditional settings I believe I can safely assume I have eaten it with MSG. Though, again, I believe the public needs additional education on MSG. It is one of those products that we hear (as example) may cause headaches if you are sensitive to it. No one I know wants to “risk” a headache… so though they may have eaten MSG prior, they may not know they have. Theoretically, I believe some people would shy away from a food product with this ingredient because of this.

Robert Danhi. Yes, I do here in USA and in Vietnam where most cooks use it... Sad, but they [can't] afford the pure meat/bone broth.

Andrea Nguyen. When I have pho in a restaurant, most likely there’s MSG in the broth. That’s fine and expected. What’s not fine is when there’s a ton of MSG in the broth. That’s just bad cooking.

Brian Nguyen. Whether homemade or restaurant made, MSG should be used sparingly.

Florentina. Yes I would, occasionally, but if I were given the choice between a bowl of pho made with MSG and one made without the use of MSG I would pick the latter.

Jay Terauchi. I understand that it's traditional and enjoy the flavor from the stock of bones, etc.  If the broth only had flavor from seasonings such as MSG, then No. It's a big selling point to Americans if you don't use MSG.

Corinne Trang. I would. I did when I was in Vietnam. I have when enjoying pho in a NY City’s Chinatown, because when in the company of friends, you talk about other things besides MSG! At home when I make pho, or any Asian soups, I never use it.

My take on MSG.

So there you have it. Certainly learned a lot myself. My own personal view on MSG is more moderate than many people's, and certainly more moderate than some of our culinary masters here. I myself do not get adverse effects after consuming moderate amounts of MSG, except for the normal thirstiness which comes with any sodium consumption anyway. I do agree that many food vendors overuse MSG and my level of enjoyment would drop like a brick; I don't like salt water and it's just a waste of my money actually. In any case I think the MSG controversy will continue on. What's the bottom line? I think it is this:

  • MSG is not banned simply because it is not necessarily bad for many of us, but we do have our own choice of what we consider a quality and healthy diet. Education and understanding are key.

I want to send many warm thanks to Donna Bauck, Robert Danhi, Andrea NguyenBrian Nguyen, Florentina, Jay Terauchi and Corrine Trang for participating in this roundtable discussion on MSG. You gave us valuable insights into this tough culinary subject.

Now let's go eat some pho.

Oh and please take the MSG survey below.

Will you eat pho with MSG? 1 or 2 answers.

View Results

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  1. Joe smoe 2 August, 2019 at 17:31 Reply

    I haven’t read every comment, just wanted to say I have such a strong reaction to msg. I am half Vietnamese and grew up with msg. My sensitivity as a youth presented itself with skin related allergies, but after puberty my reaction has changed. Every time I have msg, even if I only eat half my meal, I pass out for 1-2hrs and it’s hard to come out of a “msg coma” …I have to consume something sweet to clear the fog. My reaction is hit or miss since I go to various Asian restaurants and there is no telling what quantities of msg it’s used….. So when it hits me I’m like f**ck when I wake up…. All references that state their is no evidence of it’s harm is bs. I never have this reaction eating any other foods and I have a very diverse palette.

    • Cuong Huynh 3 August, 2019 at 22:14 Reply

      @Joe smoe: Thanks for sharing your story. If you really are allergic to msg then I wonder why you risk continuing going to Asian restaurants? Of course, almost all commercial restaurants have msg in one form or another among their ingredients, both processed and natural occurring, but Asian restaurants are notorious about overusing it. I think you should be a lot more careful about which restaurants you choose to eat.

      • Sandra 21 March, 2024 at 22:11 Reply

        You can’t be that insensitive really.
        MSG causes me to have diarrhea really bad. One of my friends actually goes into shock and lands in the hospital. It can cause migraines and even some form of bowl cancer. Do your homework PLEASE

        • Cuong Huynh 22 March, 2024 at 11:40 Reply

          @Sandra: Thanks for your viewpoint and sharing of your and your friend’s experiences. Not sure I understand your statement about being insensitive. You probably misunderstood the point so I’ll further expand on what was said. Firstly, people having problems with MSG are not being discounted in any way in my messages. The fact is people do have all kinds of problems with certain foods, and MSG and wheat are just two that can cause problems. There are many more others. This is why the medical professionals lately strongly advise that one should be careful about your food intake, both at home and in restaurants if he/she has allergic reaction to a particular food ingredients. If you have strong reaction to MSG then my suggestions still stand, that is, avoid restaurants that use MSG and choose carefully which restaurants you patronize. Bonus: an additional layer of safety once you are ready to order your food is to inform the server of your conditions/requirements, inquire about the ingredients in the dish you’re about to order, and make sure they honor your request. In the end, it’s a smart policy to always be aware of what one eats, and not accept whatever restaurants push on customers.

  2. Geoff Oosterhoudt 26 July, 2021 at 01:31 Reply

    It’s obvious that none of the experts above actually has a sensitivity to MSG, yeast extract, or autolyzed yeast extract. Those who say that it “may cause headaches” have obviously never had a migraine, because a migraine is not “just a headache.” It’s hard enough for those of us with food sensitivities and allergies to find food at the grocery store when we have to become biochemists to figure out what is going to make us sick. Downplaying the effect that various chemicals can have on humans only makes things worse. For that reason I never buy anything that has “flavor” or “natural flavor” as an ingredient, because I know that that is where the company is hiding its MSG or yeast extract. “Glutamic acid is an alpha-amino acid that is used in the biosynthesis of proteins by almost all living beings. In humans, it is non-essential, meaning the body will synthesize it. It is also an excitatory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate nervous system, which is actually the most abundant.” People keep wondering why cancer seems to be growing in the worldwide population even with “healthier foods and food production.” I suspect that, 50 years from now, scientists will know for sure exactly why, and that it will be because all of the additives, artificial and “natural” that the food industry has been subjecting the public to since the 1950s. You may use organic yeast extract and call it “all natural.” Sulfuric acid is “all natural,” as is lead, but you would not use either in your cooking, at least knowingly. Because of what professional chefs and the food industry have done in the last 75 years, there are very few places I can trust to eat. I still have to have Botox for my migraines as well as breakthrough treatments at home, even while being extra vigilant. So don’t tell me that chemical additives are something necessary in our food. That is just utter bullshit. Chinese civilization is over 4000 years old, yet MSG was only discovered about 100 years ago. Overzealous cooks don’t give me migraines… Chemicals do. One of these days Congress will actually enforce the Pure Food and Drug Act.

    • Cuong Huynh 26 July, 2021 at 11:12 Reply

      @Geoff Oosterhoudt: Thanks for sharing your view points. Just to respond to some of your points:
      – “may cause headaches”: All this means is that not everyone gets headaches from MSG. The same is true for when someone says it “may cause migraine”. This is a fact. And as a medical doctor may say to a patient, it’s best to know what you are allergic to, and educate yourself to choose the right food for your body. I don’t think anyone in this article is downplaying anything, and it’s also true that you don’t have to have an illness in order to help treat others that have it.
      – I applaud you for knowing what’s good and not good for you, and choose the right food for your body. It sounds like you do have an extreme condition that requires special attention on a regular basis. It’s good to be skeptical of what’s being served out there in public restaurants.
      – On the other hand, I do take issue with your statement “So don’t tell me that chemical additives are something necessary in our food. That is just utter bullshit.” I guarantee you no one associated with this article is telling you chemical additives are necessary in food. You probably acquired this information from elsewhere.
      – I also disagree with this statement: “Overzealous cooks don’t give me migraines… Chemicals do.” Fact is restaurateurs, chefs and cooks should/must know what they are serving to the public and the sources of their ingredients. They 100% have a choice of what ingredients to include in their offerings. There are only 2 types of restaurateurs/chefs/cooks though: 1) those who know what they are doing (either good or bad, deliberately), and 2) those who don’t know what they are doing. Either way you can’t always blame the ingredients they use.

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