Updating MSGdish readers on recent media attention to topics that we savor… MSG, Glutamate, Umami, and related food trends.
Why some Americans avoid MSG, even though its ‘health effects’ have been debunked
Author: Caitlin Dewey
On April 4, 1968, a biomedical researcher wrote a letter that would forever change how America eats. In it, Robert Ho Man Kwok described a strange illness he contracted at Chinese restaurants — specifically those that cooked with the flavoring MSG.
“MSG was popular in the United States at the time. But when Kwok’s letter hit the New England Journal of Medicine, the ingredient’s fortunes reversed: Consumers spurned it. Food-makers axed it. Scientists threw themselves into critical MSG research.
“When it comes to MSG, there’s a great deal of evidence that consumer fears have been misplaced.
“A chemical variant of glutamate — a substance that occurs naturally in high-umami foods, such as Parmesan cheese, walnuts, soy sauce and tomatoes — monosodium glutamate has been widely eaten since the early 20th century, when a Japanese scientist first distilled it from seaweed.
“Numerous high-quality studies of MSG have failed to demonstrate significant symptoms, even in people who claim to suffer from MSG reactions. In the 1990s, the FDA commissioned an independent review that found MSG only caused adverse effects in a small minority of “sensitive individuals” who ate large amounts on an empty stomach.
“Instead, historians and researchers have blamed the initial symptoms that Kwok and others attributed to MSG on a variety of other sources: excess sodium or alcohol consumed with restaurant meals, a version of the placebo effect, growing skepticism of corporations, and deep-seated, anti-Asian prejudice.
“People tend to disbelieve scientific assertions when they contradict their personal experience, Meyer [Megan Meyer, director of science communications at the International Food Information Council] said. In other words, if you believe MSG has made you ill in the past, you are unlikely to believe research that shows it didn’t.
“Sometimes it’s easier to put a ‘free from X’ label on something than to actually educate consumers about it,” said Lisa Watson, the spokeswoman for the Glutamate Association, an MSG trade group. “Personally I wish food companies would take the longer view.”
Is MSG that Bad?
Author: Aoife McElwain
For those of us with a savoury tooth, umami (or xian as it’s known in Chinese) is where it’s at. We can’t get enough of the earthy yumminess of mushrooms, seaweed broths and tomatoes. Such is the grá for the naturally occurring amino acid known as glutamic acid that the Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the early 1900s.”
“To find out more about MSG, I get in touch with Oonagh Monahan, a food business consultant at Alpha Omega Consultants, a Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology, and author of Money for Jam.”
“ ‘On cooking, fermentation or ripening, glutamic acid is converted to glutamate and this gives food its special flavour known as umami,’ Monahan explains. ‘Glutamate, when added to sodium, becomes MSG.’ ”
“ ‘A small number of people report a sensitivity to MSG,’ says Monahan. ‘However, a double-blind controlled challenge of individuals claiming to suffer from ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ failed to confirm MSG as the causative agent. MSG is one of the most extensively studied food ingredients in our food supply. Hundreds of studies and numerous scientific evaluations have concluded that monosodium glutamate (MSG) provides a safe and useful taste enhancer for foods.’ ”
“ ‘Too much of anything is probably bad for you,’ concludes Chin. ‘MSG is a concentrated product, so if a Chinese restaurant puts a heaped tablespoon of MSG in your food, you will probably react in the same way you would if you’d ingested a few kilos of kelp or mushrooms with a hefty dose of salt to boot. You won’t feel great.’ ”
Is MSG Really All that Bad?
Author: Claudia McNeilly
Why our fear of a naturally occurring ingredient has more to do with perception than reality
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, which is a synthetic form of glutamate produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. Glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid that lends soy sauce, steak, Parmesan cheese and tomatoes their umami flavour. The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from naturally occurring glutamate found in cheese, steak and tomatoes, meaning that a plate of spaghetti Bolognese will likely contain as much MSG as a box of Chinese takeout.”
“More than causing any real symptoms, eating MSG is known to contribute to a placebo effect where diners expect to feel sick after visiting a Chinese restaurant, and experience symptoms shortly after. A study published in the journal Allergy and Clinical Immunology tested 30 asthmatic patients who claimed to have a history of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome for MSG sensitivities, and found that no ill effects could be reproduced consistently during testing.
“More than improving our health by renouncing a dangerous ingredient, our fear of MSG reveals a cocktail of bad science and xenophobia. The food at Italian restaurants and steakhouses is full of MSG, but I have never heard anyone complain about MSG sickness in either setting.”
Savory Flavor-booster MSG Doesn’t Cause Headaches
Author: Caroline Praderio
Lots of people still think that eating flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG) causes headaches, nausea, chest pain, and heart palpitations — a suite of symptoms once referred to as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
“That fear is unfounded.
“In later human studies, MSG has failed to consistently cause those negative symptoms, even in people who believe they’re sensitive to it. Scientists now acknowledge that a very small percentage of people may react to MSG, according to the Mayo Clinic, but most people will have zero issues eating it in reasonable amounts.”
Relax, You Don’t Need to ‘Eat Clean’
Author: Aaron E. Carroll
We talk about food in the negative: What we shouldn’t eat, what we’ll regret later, what’s evil, dangerously tempting, unhealthy.
“The effects are more insidious than any overindulgent amount of “bad food” can ever be. By fretting about food, we turn occasions for comfort and joy into sources of fear and anxiety. And when we avoid certain foods, we usually compensate by consuming too much of others.
“All of this happens under the guise of science. But a closer look at the research behind our food fears shows that many of our most demonized foods are actually fine for us. Taken to extremes, of course, dietary choices can be harmful — but that logic cuts both ways….
“The hullabaloo over gluten echoes the panic over MSG that began roughly half a century ago, and which has yet to fully subside. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is nothing more than a single sodium atom added to glutamic acid — an amino acid that is a key part of the mechanism by which our cells create energy. Without it, all oxygen-dependent life as we know it would die.
“A 1968 letter in The New England Journal of Medicine started the frenzy; the writer reported feeling numbness, weakness and palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. A few limited studies followed, along with a spate of news articles….
“Many people still wrongly believe that MSG is poison. We certainly don’t need MSG in our diet, but we also don’t need to waste effort avoiding it. Our aversion to it shows how susceptible we are to misinterpreting scientific research and how slow we are to update our thinking when better research becomes available. There’s no evidence that people suffer disproportionately from the afflictions — now ranging from headaches to asthma — that MSG-averse cultures commonly associate with this ingredient. In studies all over the world, the case against MSG just doesn’t hold up.”