Happy 100th Birthday, MSG!
This virtually tasteless little powder has been held responsible for everything from numbness in the tongue and cheeks, rises in blood pressure, chest pains, nausea, shaking, chills and runny noses to, in extreme cases, behavioural problems, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Diseases, dementia and schizophrenia.
It started innocently enough. Konbu kelp had long been dried, harvested and shipped throughout China and Japan as a flavour enhancer. But in 1908, Kikunae Ikeda isolated the glutamate and went on to create MSG.
MSG is the salt version of glutamic acid, an amino acid in a protein molecule. Glutamic acid is broken down into glutamate, which is then mixed with salt and water to produce MSG.
Besides seaweed and kelp, the base form of MSG is naturally occurring in plenty of other foods---Parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes and mushrooms, to name just afew examples.
Most experts concur that it isn’tnaturally occurring MSG but rather the processed form that creates problems. And manufactured MSG (marketed under the brand name Accent), which came about when the demand for the tastemaker outstripped the seaweed supply, is a relatively recent creation.
But chemically produced MSG is found in far more than Chinese foods. In fact, most prepared flavour bases contain it in some form or other---many canned soups, snack foods, prepared noodles and frozen dinners use it, as do major fast-food chains like KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s.
So that begs the question of why such a seemingly dangerous substance is allowed to be used at all. Despite the reported side effects, the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada have all concluded that MSG at low doses gives no indication of adverse effects.
Government conspiracy? That’s what Jack and Adrienne Samuels think. The couple, who are behind the American anti-MSG lobby group Truth in Labeling (truthinlabeling.org), accuse the FDA of being more concerned with protecting the profits of big business than the health of the consumer.
Whichever side you fall on, you still must be wondering why the controversial additive is so prevalent and that’s the only simple thing in the MSG mythos: It all goes back to taste---MSG makes things taste better.
The Japanese have long identified a fifth taste, called “umami,” that is different, yet complementary, to the basics of hot-sour-salty-sweet.
It’s the mysterious flavour that adds depth to dishes prepared with naturally occurring MSG; why a sprinkle of Parmesan, say, lends such flavour to a dish of pasta.
And in our fast-food society, it’s a lot easier to sprinkle on MSG than start with fresh, high-quality produce. Chinese restaurants seem to feel their customers expect it, according to one popular local spot: “If it doesn’t taste good, they won’t come back.”
Another well-respected Chinese culinarian disagrees: “If you start with the best, it will taste good no matter what.”
And there you go: In the interest of cost and expediency, it’s much easier to shake on the MSG than build a dish from the bottom up, to high standards.
The good news is that because, in Chinese restaurants, MSG is added at the time of cooking, you can request your meal to be MSG free. Or, you can reward those restaurants like Cheelin and Jean’s Chinese that don’t rely on it to begin with.