We’ve all heard of the notorious Monosodium Glutamate, known either as danger salt or essence of food, depending on your belief system.
I’ve always been a bit disheartened that MSG is apparently awful for the human body; I’d heard that Chinese food has never been the same since a scare campaign got the salt eradicated. Imagine my surprise to discover that despite most Aussie Chinese food proclaiming itself to be MSG free, it can be found sprinkled throughout your local supermarket under the name ‘Flavour enhancer (621)‘. Imagine my further surprise when I found that it is present (well, the glutamate form, anyway) in a wide variety of natural sources, and no official body, governmental or academic, has ever found it necessary to warn humans against consuming MSG.
Where did it all go wrong?
Despite many studies trying and failing since the 1960s to prove any link between ill health and MSG, a certain segment of the population has long claimed to get headaches, hot flushes and sweating after eating Chinese food, and blamed these symptoms on MSG sensitivity. The origin of the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” scare was a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 by Robert Ho Man Kwok, who was certain he felt particular symptoms after eating Chinese food. A few studies which involved administering huge doses to lab rats followed, but nothing of substance about this substance has surfaced since; that is to say, despite the heavy investigation, there has been nothing found that links normal (and even larger than normal) doses to adverse effects.
What’s a placebo between friends?
Indeed, lab studies have indicated there is a placebo effect at play, with people generally only showing symptoms of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome when they know they are eating MSG. A few mischievous non-scientific experiments have further indicated the “it’s all in your head!” effect of the MSG fear; Ian Levinovitz fed MSG-laced food to his “msg-sensitive” travelling companions in China, all the while lying about the contents of their food. He waited with glutamate-baited breath to hear of their horrible reactions. There were none, of course.
Writer Alex Renton also experimented on his apparently MSG-sensitive mate. After proclaiming his propensity to adverse MSG reactions, Renton cheekily concocted him a meal full of MSG and closely related naturally occurring glutamates, including mascarpone, parma ham and tomato pizza. His unknowing friend was, not surprisingly, fine.
MSG is natural, baby!
Natural glutamates are found in many kinds of foods such as cheese (no surprise there), breast milk (definite surprise), asparagus, meat, various types of fish and seaweeds, tomatoes and mushrooms. It enhances the tongue’s perception of certain flavours already present in food, boosting the delicious meaty-savoury umami in particular. Umami was discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated glutamate, stabilised it by adding a sodium ion to make it a salt, started a company (Ajinomoto) and then made an absolute fucking fortune.
The struggle is real
So, why the complaints? One culprit responsible for mild symptoms is the consumption of large amounts of MSG on an empty stomach. It has also been theorised that most people who are complaining of MSG sensitivity are probably having an allergic reaction to another unknown ingredient; not hard to happen when eating the food of another culture. It’s not MSG though, as no antibodies or allergies have ever been recorded.
It could also be a case of “the dose makes the poison”; like salt and sugar, MSG should always be mixed thoroughly, instead of sprinkled on top. A few MSG-loaded spoons of food could overload your system in much the same way that eating a bunch of chillies in one mouthful would; the unnaturally high concentration of MSG would theoretically trick the glutamate receptors in the stomach into thinking it has eaten something toxic.
The bottom line
MSG = Not bad for you. And according to American food scientist Steve Witherly, we should all be eating more. He calls it ‘supersalt’ and feeds it to his kids to get them to eat their veggies.
Pass the MSG, please.