Thursday, February 26, 2009

MSG: The Much-Maligned Seasoning

A sparkly rectangular thin crystal, monosodium glutamate (commonly known by its abbreviated form MSG), a flavor enhancer made from a salt derivative, glutamic acid, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood seasonings ever to have been invented. Originally found in seaweed and now commercially created from fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, all it does is awaken tastebuds and essentially cause you to taste in slightly saltier HD. Yet so much controversy has come of this dissolving granule of flavorant, with myths, perceived effects (showing that mind over matter matters), and the physical manisfestation of hypochondriacs' symptoms, all working together to discredit the safety of consumption of MSG and, unfairly, Chinese food.

I'm referring, of course, to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Wikipedia sums it up best, so I'm just going to pull a direct quote from the people who've spoken:

MSG as a food ingredient has been the subject of scientifically unsubstantiated health concerns. A report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) compiled in 1995 on behalf of the FDA concluded that MSG was safe for most people when "eaten at customary levels." However, it also said that, based on anecdotal reports, some people may have an MSG intolerance which causes "MSG symptom complex"—commonly referred to as Chinese restaurant syndrome—and/or a worsening of asthmatic symptoms.[7]es of MSG given without food may elicit more symptoms than a placebo in individuals who believe that they react adversely to MSG, the frequency of the responses was low and the responses reported were inconsistent, not reproducible, and were not observed when MSG was given with food.[8] While many people believe that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the cause of these symptoms, a statistical association has never been demonstrated under controlled conditions, even in studies with people who were convinced that they were sensitive to the compound.[9][10][8][11] Adequately controlling for experimental bias includes a placebo-controlled double-blinded experimental design and the application in capsules because of the strong and unique after-taste of glutamates.[9]

See, to me, the funny thing is that the people who claim these adverse reactions to Chinese food have no physiological complaints against other foods that contain higher amounts of MSG but aren't reputed to be loaded with this ingredient. It's ironic that Chinese food suffers from the association, whereas they only use less than the average pinch of salt of the substance per quart of food. Below is a list of common food items (often processed and refined goods) that contain this seasoning, unbeknownst to the consuming public:
  • Pringles potato chips and many flavored varieties of chips
  • canned soup (recently called out with the start of the "Soup Wars." Click on the picture below to get the full story from the L.A. Times)
  • prepared stock or boullion cubes
  • Vietnamese pho
  • barbecue sauces
  • tortilla chips
  • salad dressing
  • seasoning mixes
  • anything from KFC
  • Ramen noodles
  • McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell menu items
  • Parmesan cheese
  • packaged sausage
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • soy sauce
  • some types of alcoholic beverages
Daunting list of unexpected sources, eh? And that's not even the half of it. gives you the whole rundown of who is guilty of sneaking the public this flavor enhancer, and reveals that those new commercials we've seen for umami is in fact a new name for MSG. But they're way more fair in their condemnation of the seasoning due to their unbiased studies (since although I think the majority of people who complain of suffering from MSG in Chinese food are full of it, I recognize and openly acknowledge there are people with sodium sensitivities that should avoid this ingredient) and dub the subsequent dry mouth and hour-later hunger pang the American Restaurant Syndrome instead. They say:

For years MSG Symptom Complex has been known in the US by the misnomer Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. We do not use that term anywhere on this site, except this page. The reason is quite simple. Calling this health problem Chinese Restaurant Syndrome not only does a disservice to Chinese Restaurant owners who do not add MSG, but it also dangerously hides the fact that American processed food is now so loaded with the flavor enhancer Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) as to be the largest source of MSG in the average American diet.

All of this I heartily agree with. It is entirely unfair and unsubstantiated to designate Chinese food as the culprit of all things MSG and evil, when this genre of food is a victim of misinformation. also has these valid points to make:

Chinese food, for the most part consists of fresh vegetables quickly cooked. MSG is added at the end as a condiment. It can be NOT added at the consumers request. Most Chinese Restaurant owners also know what else on the menu contains natural MSG - soy sauce for instance is naturally loaded with free glutamate. Wait staff at a Chinese restaurant will often steer the MSG sensitive patron away from dishes containing soy sauce as well as MSG. At Asian restaurants, they know what is in the food because they put it there.

Most American restaurants today purchase their foods from large US food companies that have what are called "Food Service" divisions. In American restaurants, most wait staff and often the cooks don't know what is in the food,because the soup base probably came from a can, those cute little jalapeno poppers came from a brightly colored bag in the freezer, and very little is actually "fresh". And, unfortunately, most American food scientists use the fact that soy sauce, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein naturally contains free glutamate to give their free glutamate containing products what is called "a clean label". So even cooks and wait staff don't even know what they are reading on the labels. The people who create the foods supplied to American restaurants have absolutely no compunction about hoping you don't know that MSG is in your food when you are consciously trying to avoid it.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

So what's the point to this long-winded factual piece? Merely to dispel myth, separate fact from pure fiction, and make the point that--you know what? You may not actually be allergic to MSG. In conclusion, chill out and eat what makes you happy. And if you don't feel well afterwards, well, maybe you should have eaten less, and that's the end of the story.

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