Monday, 17 June 2024

Foodie Freak: In defense of MSG




I love monosodium glutamate (MSG) so much that I make it at home. You shouldn’t be surprised at this because every single person reading this does the same thing.

First, a little history.

In 1907 a Japanese biochemistry professor became curious about some of the flavors in his wife’s cooking. He noticed that some foods had a much more satisfying flavor and yet didn’t fall into the categories of the four known tastes, and after some investigating he found that foods made with asparagus, cheeses, kelp, meats, mushrooms and tomatoes had something that he couldn’t match up with sweet, sour, salty or bitter.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda took these thoughts from home to work with him at the Tokyo Imperial University. After a considerable amount of investigating he discovered that the common denominator was the glutamates which were found in all of these items. He believed that he had discovered “The Fifth Taste.” He named it “Umami” and assumed that it along with sweet were the only tastes associated with pleasure. Bitter, salty and sour may be enjoyed by many people but they are not actually pleasure inducing.

He isolated the exact chemical, C5H9NO4, called L-glutamate, and was able to turn it into a product now known as MSG.

Although Professor Ikeda is nowadays considered one of Japan’s 10 greatest inventors, his contemporaries said there was no section of the tongue that detected MSG and so his theory was initially discounted.

So what exactly did Professor Ikeda discover then? Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid that breaks down into (monosodium) L-glutamate. It is found in many of the foods that the professor was studying and is created in many types of cooking processes.

Aging, brewing, braising, fermenting, heating, sun ripening, even the act of making soup naturally creates monosodium glutamate. The glutamic acid breaks down during these processes and becomes a simple and natural MSG.

The legendary French Chef Auguste Escoffier accidentally discovered this just about the same time as Professor Ikeda was doing his studies.

Chef Escoffier (pronounced Ess-COFFEE-eh) created a soup out of veal and onions that had none of the four primary tastes yet was delectable. He didn’t break it down scientifically, but knew he was on to something new.

Now over 100 years after Professor Ikeda and Chef Escoffier made their discoveries, the L-glutamate sensation has been marketed as “umami.” Most modern scientists and biologists admit that while there is no specific umami section of the tongue like the other primary tastes have, they have discovered that there are umami receptors all over the human tongue. An international symposium convened in 1985 and found that the umami flavor cannot be created by any combination of the four other tastes so umami was unique. The professor was right; he did discover a fifth, unique taste.

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

There is no such thing as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but here’s what happened.

One night after having dinner at a Chinese restaurant a physician felt ill, his heart was beating oddly, his breathing was labored and he had a headache.

He personally assumed that the MSG in his meal had caused this condition and wrote a letter about it to a medical journal. He never was diagnosed with any condition, and his observations were purely anecdotal and subjective; however since he wrote about it in a medical journal people grabbed onto it like a alien abductee to a psychiatrist.

Nobody has ever clinically repeated the results and nobody can confirm his condition. For all we know it’s possible he may have accidentally inhaled car exhaust fumes on the way home from the restaurant but not considered that as a contributing factor.

His symptoms actually sound more like “cheese syndrome” (which has been studied) so there is no telling what could have actually happened. It has been studied time and time again and proved, there is no such thing as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. But just like UFO theories in Area 51, the story just won’t go away.

OK, hem and haw all you want, but numerous studies have proved that MSG is perfectly safe to eat. The FDA also concurs that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has nothing to do with MSG.

Problems people claim to have with MSG are based on anecdote, conjecture or psychosomatic at worst, but nothing in fact. If MSG were a factor in the alleged syndrome then they would have the same problems eating sushi, or for that matter almost any Asian food, pot roast, Caesar salad, any cheese, milk, raw and cooked tomatoes, asparagus, any meats (especially red meats), cooked mushrooms, vegetarian meat substitutes, flavored nacho chips (actually all types of chips) ... I could list on for days.

The classic French sauce “demiglace” is so rich with glutamates that it might as well be just a bowl of beef-flavored MSG. If you were to actually look at the ingredients and cooking methods of French food, you would find it is much higher in umami flavor than Chinese food yet there are no anecdotes or stories about “French Restaurant Syndrome.” American fast food is packed with far more MSG than Chinese food, yet nobody seems to have problems with them. Could it be that aliens have placed microchips in our brains that make us only susceptible to MSG at certain places?

Your own body produces 40 grams of MSG per day just in the process of rebuilding itself. To give you an idea of how much that is, look at a jar of MSG in the grocery store: the average size jar is 85 grams. Human breast milk is 10 times higher in glutamates than cow’s milk, regardless of the mother’s diet. This fact backs up Professors Ikeda’s beliefs that sweet and umami are the tastes associated with pleasure since breast milk is sweet and full of glutamates.

It is thought that humans like sweets in general because deep in the back of our psyches it reminds us of mother’s milk, and umami could very well be another extension of this belief (just my personal conjecture on that one).

The raw food vegan’s Schadenfreude, a.k.a., the gross part

The glutamic acid inside cells of flesh is used to chemically store energy and is flavorless, but as an animal dies or the meat is cooked this glutamic acid breaks down into (monosodium) L-glutamate, that delicious flavor that MSG provides. When steakhouses age beef for long periods of time they are allowing more of the glutamic acid break down in the cells of the meat and give the fuller flavor that true steak lovers yearn for.

You could say with no real inaccuracy that MSG is the flavor of death. But since soy sauce, wine, beer and slow cookers also create MSG during their process you could also and more accurately say that MSG is the flavor of decay. It is the process of proteolysis or the sequence of cells degrading and the amino acids breaking down that creates the flavor of umami.

When mushrooms are cooked they create large amounts of MSG which is why they complement cooked beef so well. They mimic the beef aging process. And technically since MSG is a natural product, anything labeled “organic” can have MSG in it.

The only way to avoid large amounts of MSG in your diet is to become a raw foods vegan. Cooking creates umami, so every cooked meal you eat will have naturally occurring glutamates. Every bottle of alcohol, every bite of cheese, every forkful of meat, even vegetarian meat substitutes are packed with MSG. If you eat anything from a drive-through it contains huge amounts. And since so many fruits and vegetables are high in glutamates you will still consume some MSG, but it will be heavily reduced since you aren’t cooking them.

MSG is a naturally occurring substance that your body actually desires. Just because one doctor felt ill and made a conjecture isn’t a reason to demonize a product. Saying that you are allergic to MSG is like saying you are allergic to your own endocrine system; you may not know much about it and may not like the sound of it, but you don’t have to hate it.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a scientist, I am just food lover who doesn’t blindly follow the set patterns of time or popularity. I’m sorry if I have crushed anyone’s dogma when it comes to MSG, and I know there are many people out there who won’t believe any of this information.

There are plenty of Web sites out there that uphold the evils of MSG which will no doubt burn me in effigy, and they are entitled to have their wild beliefs. But glutamates are desired by the palate, and the human tongue is much more sensitive to umami flavor than any other species.

I hope you come to understand the truth about umami, but if you don’t, I understand. I console myself with the knowledge that there are thousands of Web sites for alien abductees and no one can ever convince them that there is no proof that they actually happen either.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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