Pure mono sodium glutamate from Taiwan
A recent article (found via Harold McGee’s News for curious cooks) featuring Heston Blumenthal as a co-author emphasizes the huge difference in glutamic acid contents between the flesh and pulp of tomatoes. Glutamic acid and it’s sodium salt (mono sodium glutamate or MSG) are responsible for the characteristic umami taste. On average the flesh contains 1.26 g/kg glutamic acid whereas the pulp on average contains 4.56 g/kg glutamic acid. Similar differences are found for several nucleotides which posess similar taste qualities. These differences can explain the perceived difference in umami taste between the flesh and pulp of tomatoes – and is worthwhile considering when cooking.
Those concerned about food with added MSG should read the chapter about MSG in John Emsley’s excellent book “Was it something you ate?”. First thing to note is that you can’t be allergic to MSG because our body needs glutamic acid to function properly. Emsley retraces the history of the Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) back to it’s roots in 1968 when a letter was published (R.H.M. Kwok, New Engl. J. Med. 1968, 278, 796) describing a series of symptoms experienced after having eaten at a Chinese restaurant. To make a long story short, in 1993 Tarasoff and Kelly reviewed previous studies and conducted a double blind test which led to the following conclusion:
… ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ is an anecdote applied to a variety of postprandial illnesses; rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.
Anyway, it was in John Emsley’s book that I first read about the record levels of glutamic acid found in parmesan cheese: 12 g/kg! That’s nearly three times the amount found in tomato pulp.
In some cheeses there is so much that it crystallises out in small white crystals visible to the naked eye. Think about this when you sprinkle your food with parmesan. And if you ever wondered why Italian food tastes so nice, now you know that MSG is one reason (but of course not the only one …).