In this Science Café session, Mr Shawn Keng is joined by ChM Dr Fatimah Salim from UiTM, who will be debunking the oft-misunderstood element of flavouring that enriches our tastebuds: monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Although we generally know MSG as a common flavour enhancer, but what exactly is it? Dr Fatimah introduced MSG to viewers from a scientific standpoint. It is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which readily dissolves in solution to sodium and glutamic acid.
Known in the culinary world as the fifth basic taste, after sweet, sour, salty and bitter, it lends itself to enhance the natural flavour and palatability of food. Most might know its inclusion in Japanese and Chinese cuisine, but Sabahans are also quite fond of it, according to Dr Fatimah.
Dr Fatimah gave a quick history lesson on how MSG was discovered. A Japanese biochemist named Kikunae Ikeda was attributed to the discovery of this tasty molecule. He was trying to isolate and duplicate the savoury taste of an edible seaweed called kombu, which is a common ingredient used in Japanese soup base. Dr Ikeda found that when glutamate is added to food, it makes the food more savoury and pleasing to the palate. When he developed a process to stabilise pure glutamate using ordinary salt, Dr Ikeda patented the process and began manufacturing MSG in 1909 with the name Ajinomoto, meaning “the essence of taste”.
Next, with the aid of helpful diagrams from the originator of MSG themselves, Dr Fatimah explained how MSG is produced. Starch is extracted from the cassava tubers and corn, as well as sugar from the sugarcane plant in the form of molasses. Exhibiting her love for natural products, Dr Fatimah added a trivia about how molasses gets their brown colouring: it comes from tannins. Tannins are present in the plant, which is usually then filtered to yield the pure white sugar that we use regularly.
Continuing her explanation, the glucose broken down from the starch is then fed to microbes called glutamic acid bacterium. The enzymes within these bacteria ferment the glucose, converting it into glutamic acid. Adding salt (sodium chloride) to the glutamic acid will neutralise the acid, producing sodium glutamate with water as a by-product. Too wordy to understand this? Here’s a video that illustrates the process: