Monday, October 8, 2018

MSG and the Umami Taste

I’m sure we all have heard about monosodium glutamate or MSG as it is more commonly known. 

And the alleged horror stories about MSG in our foods. 

Also called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’: a collection of symptoms such as headache, nausea and a strange numbness that some people seems to suffer after a meal of Chinese food, which went beyond the usual queasiness and self-loathing at having eaten one too many char siew paus (barbecued pork buns), supposedly. 

But I bet you didn’t know that MSG has been used as a flavor enhancer for a few millennia. And it is one of the key ingredients in many Asian cuisines, especially amongst the Chinese. 

Even, the Romans used a sauce called garum, made from fermented fish, that was used instead of more expensive salt. Garum is equally rich in monosodium glutamate  so the use of MSG isn’t a product of modern chemistry! Indeed, it has been around for thousands of years. 

Monosodium glutamate is not just a simple salt of glutamic acid, one of the 20 or so amino acids that are the building blocks of every protein in the body. 

As University of Tokyo chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda (left) discovered in 1908, MSG is the most stable salt formed from glutamic acid, and one that best delivers the sought-after ‘umami’ taste. 

This ‘umami’ – which translates as ‘savoury’ – was Ikeda’s discovery and he pursued it believing that there was something more than the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. 

Glutamate is the magic ingredient in MSG. It’s a common amino acid that occurs naturally in a large range of foods including tomatoes, parmesan cheese, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, a host of fruits and vegetables, and even human breast milk. 

Ikeda isolated it from the dried kombu seaweed (kelp). FYI, kombu which is mostly from the family Laminariaceae, is a very common ingredient in Japanese cuisine. 

Adding sodium, one of the two elements in table salt, allows the glutamate to be stabilised into a powder and added to food, thus giving us monosodium glutamate and making Kikunae a very rich man. His MSG-based condiment, Ajinomoto (‘essence of taste’) is now found on tables the world over. 

I found this video clip which debunks the negatives surrounding MSG:

MSG’s notoriety took off in 1968 when smart aleck Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine musing about the possible causes of a syndrome he experienced whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants in the US. In particular, he described a feeling of numbness at the back of his neck that then spread to his arms and back, as well as general weakness and heart palpitations. 

Kwok speculated the cause could be soy sauce – but dismissed this as he used it in home cooking without the same effects – or the more liberal use of Chinese cooking wine in commercial establishments. 

Then came the clanger: perhaps it was the monosodium glutamate used as a common seasoning in Chinese restaurants. As food-related health theories are wont to do, his suggestion went viral, spawning a huge number of scientific studies, books exposing ‘the truth’ about MSG, anti-MSG cookbooks, and even prompting Chinese restaurants to advertise that they didn’t use MSG in their cooking.

I have trawled through MSG-related articles to ascertain the evidence, for or against. So far, it has been the former. 

Therefore, there's really nothing to get worried about! There is absolutely no scientific evidence to prove that MSG is harmful.

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