Seaweed, Soldiers, and the Fifth Taste: Exploring the Origins of Umami at MOFAD Lab


This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Walk into the MOFAD Lab in Williamsburg, and you'll immediately notice what is probably the biggest piece of seaweed you've ever seen, dangling like a snake from the ceiling. It's a crucial part of the museum's opening exhibit, Flavor: Making it and Faking It, and it lives in the section of the museum devoted to the discovery of umami.

But what is umami, and how does it play into the history of manufactured flavor? As Catherine Piccoli, program associate at the museum, explains, it couldn't be more crucial.

"Umami is the fifth known taste," she says. "When you eat something that has umami in it, it binds with taste receptors on your tongue the same way sour flavors bind with sour receptors." Umami comes from glutamic acid, among other sources, and is an amino acid naturally found in the human body — specifically in breast milk and amniotic fluid.

In 1908, chemist Kikunae Ikeda was trying to determine what it was that he loved in dashi, the kelp-and-bonito laden broth so ubiquitous in his native Japanese food. It turned out to be glutamic acid, which he eventually determined came from kombu, a type of kelp. Wanting to mimic it, he combined it with sodium to form mono-sodium glutamate, or MSG. By the next year, a company called Ajinomoto turned Dr. Ikeda's discovery into crystalline powder form, and patented it. From there, it quickly made its way into Japanese cooking and beyond.

As she was researching how MSG wended its way stateside, Piccoli kept landing upon the same tale: that during World War II, U.S. soldiers in the South Pacific preferred Japanese rations, which often contained MSG, to their American-issued version. The ration-makers, who turned to commercial food production after the war, eventually caught on. But the reality is that "MSG has been in the U.S. food supply since the '20s," Piccoli says. "Companies like Heinz and Campbell's were importing it and putting it in their foods." So we've been tasting MSG in American foods for nearly a century now. It's everywhere, despite the bad rap it got in the late 1960s, when the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome" was coined, blaming MSG for the uncomfortable after-effects (headaches, weakness) some people experience after eating Chinese food. That was an unfair accusation — MSG has never been proven to cause any of these symptoms — and in any case, most companies worked around the bad press by using other sources of glutamic acid: yeast extract, and hydrolyzed protein, for example.

Because the MOFAD launch exhibit centers on how the flavors we eat daily are both natural and manufactured, MSG was a crucial element. "This was the time when the flavor industry became prolific and indispensable to the processed food industry," Piccoli says.

As she put together the exhibit, which includes antique MSG tins, Piccoli spent a lot of time on eBay and Etsy. She located a number of collectors — one who obsessively collected old advertising and recipe booklets — and academic collections, such as one at Michigan State University. Ajinomoto itself, she found, was happy to loan materials, responding to her emails immediately. The collection came together far more easily than she'd anticipated.

And that huge piece of seaweed? "Kelp is so integral to the story of Dr. Ikeda, umami, and MSG," she says, that program director Emma Boast decided she'd really like to have a big piece, and give the impression of a "kelp forest." They got their hands on a piece of kelp from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.

At the museum, visitors can taste natural umami tablets — mushroom, seaweed, and tomato — or manufactured MSG tablets, which amuses Piccoli. "Some people really like the MSG, and you can see them smile," she says, "but other people go straight to the trashcan." It's a fascinating way to observe people exploring the famed fifth taste.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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