Food Myths: MSG

Most of the people I ask about their favorite cuisine, they tell me that they love the Chinese flavors. But what they actually love in the Chinese food is the umami flavor. And at the same time they are the ones who say that they do not put MSG in their foods because it is “cancerous”. And ultimately they are the ones who complain that they do not get the “taste” what the shops make. Well, maybe after reading this post, you might get that taste in your food back.

WHAT IS MSG?

MSG, i.e. MonoSodium Glutamate, is a flavor enhancer that is responsible for enhancing the sensations of Umami flavors on the tongue. “Umami” word can be identified as a savory flavor, which was derived from the Japanese word “Umai”, which means Delicious.

Now, if every cell of our body produces this acid, how can a sodium salt of it be any dangerous?Before MSG was put into used, Chefs used various kinds of seaweeds to enhance the flavor of foods. In 1908, Chemist Kikunae Ikeda studied these weeds, and came to the conclusion that this umami flavor was coming from an amino acid named ‘L-Glutamate’.

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L Glutamate is very common in our diet. It is not harmful at all. The Mono-sodium salt of this acid makes it just easier to put on our dishes, due to its stable structure. Dashi stock is ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine, and is used in almost all Japanese food products. Ikeda isolated Glutamate from the kombu seaweed from the dashi stock his wife prepared. When we add Sodium, one of the two components of table salt to this, it stabilizes the acid into a powder and forms mono-sodium glutamate.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

It all started with a letter written by Dr Ho Kwok to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, explaining of certain symptoms he faced after having dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in USA, particularly describing a feeling of numbness at the back of his neck, and then spread to his arms and back, as well as general weaknesses and heart palpitations. He suspected the cause to be Soy Sauce, but dismissed the idea as he didn’t face any such symptom while using the same in his own kitchen.

Perhaps it was the mono-sodium glutamate, used as a common seasoning in Chinese restaurants. As it was a food myth, it went viral suddenly, spawning a huge number to scientific studies, people exposing “The Truth” about MSG, anti-MSG cookbooks, and even prompting Chinese restaurants to advertise that they don’t use MSG in their cooking, even though it was STILL being used.

The Thing About Glutamate

Glutamate is the main component in MSG. It is one of the most commonly found amino acids in foods such as tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, various fruits and vegetables, and even human breast milk. MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid. Every cell of human beings produces glutamic acid as a result of the Kreb’s cycle during the respiration of food.

ILL EFFECTS OF OVERDOSE OF MSG

Of course, everything seems wonderful till a certain limit. Likewise, MSG does have certain ill-effects if taken in IN EXCESS. I repeat, IN EXCESS.

  • MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it over-excites the cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damages to varying degrees, and potentially even triggering learning disabilities.
  • It can cause obesity, eye damage, depression, rapid heartbeat, numbness.

Have everything in your diet, but to a certain limit. Never exceed that, or it may be fatal. Not just in food, but this is a life lesson which makes us aware of how hard can extremities be, and how subtle and satisfying can the smallest things be. A personal favorite chef of mine, Shannon Bennett used to say, “Less is more”.


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