Updating MSGdish readers on recent media attention to topics that we savor… MSG, Glutamate, Umami, and related food trends.
No More Freaking Out About MSG
Author: Yvette d'Entremont (aka "SciBabe")
Thanks to the internet, we have the ability to both debunk old wives’ tales and make up new ones. But no matter how many efforts are made by science writers, there is always someone who says MSG gives them headaches. Or it gives them intestinal problems. Or the MSG ate their homework. (It’s worth noting that some people may have sensitivity to MSG when ingesting it in large amounts, but the chances of something like this happening is so small that MSG sensitivity isn’t widespread)…
“We now know that the data says, over and over again, that MSG is safe (and the FDA categorizes it as “generally safe to eat”). A meta analysis published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners in 2006 showed that there had been no consistent ability to show any causal relationship between MSG and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” In 2000, researchers set out to analyze the responses to MSG in people who had reported symptoms from ingesting it, and found that they could not reproduce these effects. Finally, a 2016 review concluded that a causal relationship between MSG and CRS has not been proven.
“According to the FDA, some people may experience mild symptoms when they eat three or more grams of MSG on an empty stomach. Keep in mind, though, that a typical serving of food has less than 0.5 g of MSG, so consuming three grams without food is unlikely, which is why this doesn’t give a lot of useful information about the actual safety of ingesting MSG. (Hey, if you ate three grams of salt on an empty stomach, that could give you some symptoms, too.) And if you’re worried about MSG versus the glutamate naturally occurring in foods, you probably don’t have to be. The FDA’s website says that the “glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way. An average adult consumes approximately 13 grams of glutamate each day from the protein in food, while intake of added MSG is estimated at around 0.55 grams per day.”
An MSG Convert Visits the Home of Umami
Author: Helen Rosner
A few years ago, this affinity for MSG might have made me seem edgy or cool. Monosodium glutamate has been widespread in the American food supply since at least the nineteen-twenties, imported from China and Japan by major food-production companies like Heinz and Campbell’s, according to research done by Catherine Piccoli, a curator at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink. But a 1968 letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine raised the spectre of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” an illness allegedly brought on by the consumption of MSG, which was commonly used in American Chinese restaurants. Ever since, the chemical compound has been vilified—despite dozens of rigorous studies concluding that the ingredient is innocuous and the “syndrome” nonexistent. Certain scientists and culinarians have long agitated for MSG’s rehabilitation. In a 1999 essay for Vogue titled “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?,” the legendary food writer Jeffrey Steingarten gleefully ripped to shreds the standard litany of complaints and protests. But only in the past decade has MSG’s reputation truly turned a corner. The Times, Epicurious, and Bon Appétit have risen to its defense. The near-infallible food-science writer Harold McGee has regularly championed its use.
“Monosodium glutamate is a compound molecule: in it, glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the mysterious deepening of flavor, is stabilized by sodium, becoming something flaky and sprinkleable, like a fine, pearlescent salt. Glutamate is produced naturally by the human body, and it is an essential building block of protein found in muscle tissue, the brain, and other organs. (It is present in remarkable quantities in human breast milk, though it hardly appears at all in milk from cows.) Glutamate also occurs naturally in all the foods that we associate with umami: aged hard cheeses, tomatoes, mushrooms, dried and fermented fish and fish sauces, and savory condiments like Marmite and Worcestershire sauce. Like any mindful cook, I keep a wedge of two-year-aged parmesan in my cheese drawer and a tube of tomato paste curled up in the corner of the butter shelf, knowing that pasta will always taste better under a glutamate-rich snowfall of parmesan, and that a squiggle of tomato paste can deepen any sauce or stew. But, sometimes, you don’t want a dish to be cheesy or tomatoey; sometimes you just want something to taste like itself, only transcendently better. For that, nothing but pure MSG will do. It is to savory flavor what refined sugar is to sweet.”
photo credit: By 武蔵清亮 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
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.”