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MSG: Mysterious Savory Grains 2023

Recommended with Reservations

Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Susann Shin and Yi Chen
Directed by Kyle Finnegan
Streaming, 12 mins

General Adult
Cooking; Food; Race Relations

Date Entered: 02/12/2024

Reviewed by Abbey B. Lewis, STEM Engagement Librarian, University of Colorado Boulder

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) occupies an uncanny space in the culinary world. Nearly ubiquitous in savory snack foods and prepared condiments, it’s responsible for a savory taste that brings depth and flavor to a wide range of foods. However, a combination of misinformation and racism have created a reputation for MSG as a harmful ingredient, particularly relating to its use in Chinese restaurants. MSG: Mysterious Savory Grains attempts to tease out the myths surrounding MSG, providing a concise overview of the factors leading to unfavorable views about the ingredient, as well as the science behind its flavor-enhancing capabilities.

Perspectives from two interview subjects provide the film’s narration. Jennifer LeMesurier, a Colgate University Writing and Rhetoric professor who has published on the ways that racism has affected public perception of an ingredient that most science regards as innocuous, provides details on some of her research. Tim Ma, a Washington D.C.-based chef and restaurateur, discusses his own experiences cooking with MSG and interacting with customers who carry misconceptions about the ingredient. In spite of their excellent insights, at just 12-minutes long, the film is too short to truly add new depth and detail to the already existing information on the topic. Ma makes an apt connection between MSG’s history and the racism against Asian-Americans that affected Chinese restaurants during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ideally this point could have been drawn out to complement LeMesurier’s research on food and racism, but this and other potential avenues for deeper investigation are left unexplored.

MSG: Mysterious Savory Grains is a suitable film for introducing students to the science, culinary use, history, and racism that surrounds monosodium glutamate. It has potential for classroom use that might springboard students into nuanced discussions of racism, food, and pseudoscience and its brief running-time may ultimately be a benefit in this context. However, given the robust, and often freely available, resources on MSG that already exist, this film is recommended with reservations.

Published and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Anyone can use these reviews, so long as they comply with the terms of the license.