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I remember the first dis of MSG that I ever heard. It was from one of my favorite Tim Burton movies, “Beetlejuice”. Lydia was eating Cantonese takeout with her father and stepmother, and said that she “plan[ned] on having a stroke from the amount of MSG that’s in this food”. That right there told me that this MSG, whatever it was, was probably not a good thing and that it must have been something that was put in Chinese food back in the 80s. I was blissfully unaware until much later in life about how prevalent MSG is in not only current Chinese food in America, but also many fast food joints and processed snacks. Hmm... I don’t feel like I’m dying. Perhaps I better look into this.

Those three letters, MSG, carry with them a lot of bad juju and controversy in the minds of average Americans. But do Americans even know why? All of our natural cognizant lives we’ve all just known and accepted that MSG is a dangerous food additive that is put into Asian cuisine to make us eat more of it and it will probably kill you if you eat too much of it. Am I right? Well, allow me to blow your mind and tell you everything you think you know about MSG is wrong! It’s time to redeem this tasty treat, and put a shaker in every spice rack!

MSG stands for Monosodium Glutamate. To understand how MSG is not harmful to you, let’s break monosodium glutamate down on a molecular level. MSG is formed from a naturally occurring amino acid or protein called L-Glutamate. L-Glutamate, was discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda who was a chemist. He found this protein by examining and breaking down the compounds of seaweed because he wanted to know what it was about the seaweed that made dishes so savory. Chefs in Japan have been using seaweed in cooking for as long as there has been cooking in Japan. The glutamate protein has a molecular makeup that includes oxygen, hydrogen and and Nitrogen atoms. It can be found in many foods that we eat everyday like cheese, meats, mushrooms and even some vegetables. Oh yeah, and it’s in your body too. That’s right, your body is a glutamate factory! And, if you see a sign that says NO MSG, but then add soy sauce to it, you’ve just doused your food in glutamate. IT’S EVERYWHERE!



So, that’s the glutamate part; now how about the monosodium? Well, “mono” means one and sodium is that stuff you gotta watch out for on your food labels if you have high blood pressure. It basically table salt. Monosodium Glutamate is the crystallized version of glutamate that can easily be sprinkled onto food to make your umami taste buds on your tongue go into overload with delicious savory flavor. Yum!

What is umami? I’m glad you asked. Umami comes from the word Umai, which is a Japanese word that closely translated to “savory, delicious or tasty”. Umami is the 5th flavour that our tongues can taste, the others being: sweet, bitter, salty & sour. I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard about there being a 5th taste. It’s like the 5th Element! But, in Japan, Umami is a well known concept and it is often talked about when yummy dishes are being made or the subject is MSG.

Anyways, back to Ikeda, after he discovered this crafty little ammo acid, he patented it in Japan, the USA and France. A year later, with the help of a very successful business owner, he created a factory to mass produce MSG made from seaweed and it is still sold to this day under the same brand name Ajinomoto, which translates to “essence of taste” Today, however, MSG is made from fermenting the juices of sugar beets and sugarcane. It goes through a process and then it is made into sodium granules. Not much different from how white sugar crystals are made, only MSG is umami. Weird right?

So why does MSG have such a bad reputation, especially here in the states? It all goes back to a letter that was written to the New England Medical Journal.  The letter was described as lighthearted and more questioning that accusatory. He happened to be of Chinese descent and one day, he decided to chow down on some chow mein, and he really horked it up. In the letter, this physican described feeling some unpleasant side effects from the food he ate which included, “A numbness at the back of the neck that radiates to the arms and back. And, a general weakness and palpitation.” The scientist dubbed these effects as, “Chinese Restaurant Symptom” and then, concerned, he suggested in this same letter, that it could have perhaps been of the use of MSG. At that time, MSG was not widely used in authentic Chinese cuisine, but it was used in American Chinese food, which is completely different, if you didn’t know.

The stigma of MSG was born from, not even an entry into the medical journal, but a LETTER to the journal! I am not sure how this “lighthearted” letter became LAW on the subject of MSG being harmful, but it is just pure flawed logic. You’d think that a substance that has this much going against it would have been studied and tested and retested countless times to make sure! But nope, this one man gets weak and palpitat-y and then monosodium glutamate gets crucified. More recently, studies have been done to show that it is very hard to actually experience these symptoms that the doctor described in this letter. To get the symptoms, you would have to ingest a large amount of MSG, about 300 grams of it, to feel a headache and weakness and that is on an empty stomach. And that’s not all, even under those circumstances, you may still not feel any negative side effects at all because they only affect a small percentage of people. Still not convinced? What if I told you that the FDA, the Mayo Clinic and The World Health Organization have named MSG as safe to ingest?

Do you want to know what I think is the worst tragedy about the lack of appreciation for MSG? We Americans have been avoiding our icky tasting vegetables and salads for so long, that now we are one of the fattest countries in the world. And it’s all because we’ve been afraid to sprinkle magic tasty dust on our bland and boring healthy foods. Wanna make that rabbit food that you are forcing yourself to eat for the sake of a better diet taste good?? Sprinkle your salad or steamed veggies with MSG and you’ll think you are eating a burger and fries. But really, it should be noted that sugar is the main reason for American obesity. Sugar gets pumped into most processed foods, especially the ones that say low fat. But that’s a topic for another day. I digress, MSG mixes things with love and makes your veggies taste good! So why not give it a little shake?


www.Dishmag.com / Issue 194 - August 5832
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