Samui Wining & Dining
Demystifying MSG

Just what’s so bad about this salty little flavouring,anyway?

 

17Poor old MSG has had a tough time of it in the press. Shortness of breath this, heart palpitations that. And yet it still features heavily in a large proportion of Asian cooking. The substance came to the fore when one man, Kidunae Ikeda, a Japanese professor, wanted to isolate ‘deliciousness’ – an admirable quest indeed! He began by realising that although we have always known taste to fall into one of four categories – sweet, sour, bitter and salty – there was actually a fifth taste. He aimed to quantify this powerful and elusive flavour note, study it and then manufacture it as a commodity. His honourable mission was to bottle this ‘deliciousness’ so that even poor farmers in rural areas could add a drop of it to their otherwise lacklustre dishes, and eat like kings.

    After many trials, Professor Ikeda managed to extract this substance, the fifth flavour, from seaweed, and he called it umami. In order to stabilise the chemical he added salt and water, and voilà, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, was born. Then he realised that he could actually make it cheaper and more simply by using fermented molasses or wheat. So that’s what he did. MSG was marketed as a condiment, the name for which translates as, “the essence of taste”, and it quickly gained popularity, not just in Japan but Asia-wide. It wasn’t long before a soup broth that didn’t contain MSG was considered bland. But umami wasn’t technically a brand new invention – it’s actually a naturally occurring ingredient in many foods, glutamate. Take Parmesan, for example, this hard cheese’s glutamate content means that when people add a dusting to their pasta it does more than add a cheesy taste – it also stimulates your tongue’s umami receptors to boost other flavours in the dish. And Parmesan’s not alone – ripe tomatoes, cured meats and dried mushrooms also contain glutamate.

  But then, a hurdle. Reports began to come in of strange symptoms that people were experiencing after having eaten Chinese food. Naturally these problems were ascribed to the ‘special’ ingredient: MSG. Once the media got a hold of this information, MSG became the culprit for all manner of extraordinary side effects, which sensationally included putting holes in children’s brains! Others were numbness, burning sensations, tingling, facial tightness, chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, weakness and breathing difficulties.

 

      But there are always two sides to every story – and this one is no exception. In 2005, The Guardian published an article by Alex Renton entitled, “If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” He outlined that actually, there has never been a study that has been able to conclusively prove the dangers of MSG when it’s consumed at ‘normal’ levels in the diet.” He wrote, “MSG-phobia still shows no signs of subsiding. This despite the fact that every concerned public body that ever investigated it has given it a clean bill of health, including the EU, the United Nations Food Agencies (which in 1988 put MSG on the list of 'safest food additives'), and the British, Japanese and Australian governments.” That doesn’t change the fact, however, that there are people reporting adverse reactions to it. Common opinion now is that it affects some people but not others, or at least some more than others.

       But there are always two sides to every story – and this one is no exception. In 2005, The Guardian published an article by Alex Renton entitled, “If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” He outlined that actually, there has never been a study that has been able to conclusively prove the dangers of MSG when it’s consumed at ‘normal’ levels in the diet.” He wrote, “MSG-phobia still shows no signs of subsiding. This despite the fact that every concerned public body that ever investigated it has given it a clean bill of health, including the EU, the United Nations Food Agencies (which in 1988 put MSG on the list of 'safest food additives'), and the British, Japanese and Australian governments.” That doesn’t change the fact, however, that there are people reporting adverse reactions to it. Common opinion now is that it affects some people but not others, or at least some more than others.

      If you’re trying to avoid it in the supermarket by selecting products without the words MSG or monosodium glutamate on the label, it may not be that simple. With all the stigma that surrounds it, producers have taken to creative labelling, and a number of clever pseudonyms have been compiled, which include: autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, gelatin, glutamate, glutamic acid, hydrolyzed protein, monopotassium glutamate, sodium caseinate, textured protein, yeast extract, yeast food and yeast nutrient. You’d be hard pressed to remember all those names, that’s for sure.

      With regards to eating in restaurants while you’re here on Samui, generally speaking it’s the lower-end venues that utilise MSG, while the higher end ones have succumbed to popular demand and removed it from their cooking. Truth of the matter is, there’s less use for it in a kitchen where ample fresh produce is used anyway. But that doesn’t change the fact that umami really is so damned tasty. Perhaps best to stick to its naturally occurring forms though, just to be on the safe side. Parmesan anyone?



Christina Wylie


 


Copyright 2017 Samui Wining & Dining. All rights reserved Siam Map Company Ltd.