Monosodium Glutamate or “MSG” is increasing in popularity in many countries, particularly those in Asia. I am currently living in Thailand and on a number of occasions I witnessed the chef adding a mysterious white powder to my food. Was my food being spiked I pondered? If the definition of spiked is measured as adding drugs or alcohol to someone’s drink or food without them knowing, then no I was not being spiked. If the definition is used a little more loosely as someone adding a chemical to your food that might cause problems to your health then yes it is possible I was being spiked. I became curious to the effect MSG has on one’s health, unfortunately the research seems to be sketchy in certain areas.
What is MSG
Put simply MSG is a food additive. It stands for Monosodium Glutamate. Sodium being the ingredient in table salt and glutamate is a synonym of glutamic acid and is a naturally occurring amino acid.
A chemist named Kikunae originally derived it from seaweed over 100 years ago. He quickly discovered that it had flavor enhancing properties. The FDA states today it is made by fermenting food such as starch, sugar cane or molasses :S. Perhaps I have been fermenting my food in a different manner?
MSG is used as a flavor enhancer in various foods. No surprise the convenience foods (snacks, soups, instant noodles etc.) are of top the list. However as I discovered it is now also used in foods where originally it had no place, such as my green curry!
MSG and global demand
The global demand for MSG has been growing, particularly in Asia due to the fact that in many Asian cuisines it has increasingly become a key ingredient. China seems happy enough to fill this demand as it is both the leading producer and the leading consumer of MSG. However MSG has seen substantial growth in other countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil and Nigeria. Fortunately the demand in European countries and North America is relatively low.
How does MSG affect our health?
There have been many skeptics regarding human consumption of MSG, saying that this flavor enhancer is accompanied by negative physiological symptoms which include headaches. This has humorously been titled Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS).
However at present there seems to be a lack of solid scientific evidence to support these claims.
John Olney a neuroscientist injected MSG into mice and concluded that the additive causes a number of neurological problems in his subjects, including brain lesions and impaired development. This sounds interesting and can perhaps explain the headaches? However critics of this study say we do not inject MSG rather we ingest it making the study less valid. They also point out that those mice were injected with MSG in quantities fit for a horse.
Another study conducted in 1993 tested 71 subjects for CRS reactions after consuming MSG. However they concluded that “realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.”
The largest double-blind placebo-controlled study on MSG was conducted in 2000. Researchers tested 130 subjects who claimed they were sensitive to the additive. This time the researchers discovered that MSG created minor and short-lasting reactions in certain individuals, however these could not be reproduced consistently during later test.
Why do we need it?
According to certain members of the scientific community MSG triggers the fifth human taste, a savory taste known as umami which is a taste that naturally occurs in foods such as meat broths, fish and mushrooms. Up until recently we were considered to have four key tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.)
Some of these flavors are rarer in nature which encourages us to gorge on them when they are present as it the case with sweet and salty flavors. In modern society we have an abundance of the foods and in turn flavors that were rare in nature. This means left unchecked we can pretty much gorge on them until we are the size of cars, which is precisely what some people to do. They hit our primordial sensors and reward us for indulgent behavior.
Umami may also be a flavor which encourages us to overconsume. As MSG provides this flavor it may lead us to consume more than we would have had it not been present. In one study researchers found that people who eat more MSG are more likely to be overweight or obese. The study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed 10,000 adults in China for about 5.5 years on average. They found men and women who ate the most MSG (a median of 5 grams a day) were about 30 percent more likely to become overweight by the end of the study than those who ate the least amount of the flavor enhancer (less than a half-gram a day).
What is surprising is the increased risk wasn’t merely because people were indulging in more calorie dense, MSG-rich foods. The link between high MSG intake and being overweight held even after accounting for the total number of calories people ate.
Although the scientific consensuses hasn’t fully concluded whether MSG is a bad as some critics say there does appear to be some evidence that it isn’t as safe as certain groups, probably those who are selling it are advocating.
I have to admit as with many I do find science interesting. However I don’t think we should solely rely on science to determine what we eat. I have an innate distrust for MSG so instead of waiting for more science to prove further adverse effects I will be saying “mai sai pong chuu rot”, which as you have probably guessed in Thai means NO MSG!