MSG - Bad Rap or Wise to Avoid?
We love a good food debate. Which pizza style is better - New York thin crust or Chicago Deep Dish? Mexican or Mediterranean Oregano? Is a wrap really a sandwich? Bean or No Beans? Then there's the great salt debate - should you or shouldn't you?

With most food debates, the opinions are split pretty evenly.

When it comes to Mono Sodium Glutamate, the scales aren't quite so even. These three simple letters - M.S.G. make it one of the most notorious additives in food. No one seems to want to go out to eat at a restaurant that may add MSG to the food. Most of us have all heard about its alleged downside - it causes dizziness, headaches, nausea and stomachaches. I've even heard it said that only lazy chefs use it as a shortcut to better flavored food.

One of the more recent food fads has been America's obsession with "umami" (pronounced "ooh ma mee"). While MSG is to be avoided like the plague, food snobs "in the know" are raving about discovering umami. In actuality, MSG and umami are two sides of the same coin.

What is MSG and Umami?

Think about a plate of hot pasta with tomato sauce topped with Parmesan cheese, a just grilled steak with a savory mushroom sauce, or some stir-fried chicken with crisp vegetables in a tangy soy sauce. In all of these dishes, there is a common flavor denominator that may be best described as having the fifth taste, "umami". Umami is a taste attributed to foods containing glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein. Foods naturally high in glutamate include sharp cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed and many fermented foods.

In 1907, Professor Kikunae Ikeda (1864-1936), a Japanese chemist and Tokyo Imperial University professor of Chemistry, discovered the chemical basis of a taste he named ‘umami'.

Professor Ikeda was having dinner at the university and felt that the broth's flavor for the seaweed soup (called dashi) he was eating was more delicious than normal. What gave dashi (pronounced daa shee), the ubiquitous Japanese soup base, its savory meaty flavor? Dashi is a fermented base made from boiled seaweed and dried fish, and was widely used by Japanese chefs to add an extra level of flavor depth to meals, while also pairing well with vegetables and soy. The main substance of dashi was the seaweed, Saccharina japonica (better known as kombu). After slowly savoring the flavor, he came to the conclusion that the difference must have been derived from the kombu in the broth.

In his lab, he ran the seaweed through a series of chemical experiments; and after days of evaporating and treating the seaweed, he was able to isolate a specific compound into a crystallized form. The molecular makeup of these crystals was the same as glutamic acid. The crystals had the distinct savory taste that dashi provided to other foods. Professor Ikeda deemed this taste umami, from the Japanese word umai, meaning delicious. Ikeda discovered that, while MSG does not enhance the 4 basic tastes (bitter, salty, sour and sweet), it does intensify the complex flavors of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables.

Ikeda recognized the financial ramifications of his discovery, and by 1909 he was mass producing a sodium salt form of glutamic acid (monosodium glutamate) and calling it Ajinomoto (translates to "essence of taste"). MSG quickly became popular in Asia.

When did MSG become evil?

Monosodium glutamate became notorious in the late 1960's when Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine pontificating about the possible causes of a "sickness" he got whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants in the US. He described a feeling of numbness at the back of his neck that then spread to his arms and back, general overall weakness and heart palpitations.

The New York Times picked up on this letter from the reputable medical journal and coined the term "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome", or CSR, and the name, and imagery it implied, stuck.

As health theories surrounding food tend to, this new "theory" rapidly spread, and with it came a slew of "scientific" studies, books exposing ‘the truth' about MSG and anti-MSG cookbooks. The ramifications to the food industry (including more than just Chinese restaurants) and American consumers were swift and significant. MSG, which had been commonly used as a preservative and flavor enhancer since the 1950s, was labeled a toxin and removed from commercial applications in everything from baby food to canned soup and frozen vegetables.

What do Chefs Think?
Chef Jerry Traunfeld, when doing research for his Sichuan inspired Seattle restaurant, Lionhead, traveled extensively throughout China and found MSG everywhere. "It's as common as salt there," he stated in a Seattle Times article, "and it really kind of defines the flavor profile of the cuisine."

In 2014, cutting edge San Francisco restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, placed salt shakers of MSG on its tables as a bold statement. Other big-name chefs - including David Chang and Jack Bishop - have also publicly stated that MSG has been an unfairly maligned ingredient.

David Chang, the renowned chef and owner of Momofuku restaurant group, talked about Umami taste and MSG at a recent MAD Symposium in Copenhagen and addressed what he considers the vilification of MSG head-on. "All evidence suggests that MSG is not harmful to you. It's a salt, and more importantly, it's a delicious salt."

Jack Bishop, one of the culinary talents behind the television shows America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country, says "There's really no difference between what's in MSG and the glutamates that you find in mushrooms, in beef and all these other ingredients. It's not some scary, manufactured compound that doesn't really exist in nature; it's just a distilled version of something that exists in many foods that we normally eat."

Western trained chefs typically prefer ingredients (like mushrooms, parmigiana cheese, soup stock and tomatoes) that bring lots of natural glutamates with them, while Asian trained chefs have no issue using the isolated, refined form of MSG.

The Scientists Weigh In

Since the first report of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" 40 years ago, clinical trials have been unable to identify a consistent relationship between the use of MSG and the triggering of symptoms that make up the syndrome. MSG has been anecdotally identified as the cause of severe asthma and migraine headache episodes but there is no consistent scientific data to support this relationship. Placebo-controlled trials have been unable to replicate an MSG-sensitive subset of the population.

In the US, the typical American consumes almost 11 grams of glutamate each day from natural protein sources, with less than 1 gram coming from MSG. That's the equivalent of approximately 1 oz. of parmesan cheese. In Asia, daily MSG intake averages closer to 3 grams per day. Most researchers believe that the human body treats MSG ingested glutamates the same as glutamate that is eaten from natural foods, like cheese or tomatoes.

Too much MSG, like too much salt (both contain sodium), might make you feel dehydrated, tired and ill. Likewise, you might feel less than optimal after overindulging in greasy, heavy food at, say, a Chinese restaurant.

The safety of MSG has been repeatedly reaffirmed by a number of different sources within the scientific community, including the FDA, since 1958. In 1987, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Communities' Scientific Committee for Foods classified the "acceptable daily intake" of MSG as "not specified," which is the most favorable categorization for a food ingredient. Harvard University has also reported that the World Health Organization placed MSG in the safest category of food ingredient, and the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association state that glutamate has not been shown to pose a "significant health hazard" in any form.

For a food ingredient that has essentially no confirmed scientific evidence of deaths or serious illness, while also receiving numerous scientific safety approvals, MSG has still created what can essentially be termed "mass hysteria" in the general population. The majority of the case made against MSG is based on personal accounts of adverse health effects and MSG intolerance.

These scientific studies do have their critics. Much of the disapproval is on the grounds that these studies have been industry funded. Not all of the studies have been sponsored by the industry.

Is MSG High in Sodium?
Contrary to popular belief, MSG is not high in sodium. MSG contains only about one-third the amount of sodium as table salt (12% versus 39%). When small quantities of MSG are used in combination with a reduced amount of table salt during food preparation, the flavor-enhancing properties of MSG allow for far less salt to be used during and after cooking. MSG brings out the best natural flavors in food, working well in reduced-sodium and reduced-fat dishes and can reduce total sodium by 30 to 40 percent without influencing palatability.

So What's the Verdict?
As FiveThirtyEight's Christie Aschwanden has written, once we reach false conclusions, our brains prevent us from accepting new information that can correct those mistaken assumptions.

If you believe that MSG poses no threat and is actually a wonderful food enhancer that provides the elusive umami flavor - then it does.

And it you believe that MSG is a chemical additive that can cause a variety of ailments then it does and it will.

For me, I'm fascinated by the MSG controversy and am of the opinion that while it may be relatively safe we still have no plans of ever adding it to any of our seasoning blends.

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