Mouthful

What in the world are you eating?

100 glorious years of MSG

25 September 2008 | 10:39 - By Phil Lees

What began as a highbrow discussion of Chinese food in Australia a few days ago ended with the most lowbrow of gastronomic outcomes: me cooking the Australian version of chow mein that absolutely requires a whole packet of the cheapest, home-brand powdered chicken noodle soup available. Apart from that, cabbage, minced meat, curry powder and rice is required. Mix with water and boil.

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I have no idea from whence this abomination of a recipe came but I'm guessing that it originated on the back of a chicken noodle soup packet in the 60s rather than from anywhere near China.Which has me wondering, why was it acceptable to cook a meal using MSG-filled powdered soup and not just use straight MSG?

As a coincidence, this year MSG gets its letter from the Queen.

In 1908, while searching for a method for commercializing the flavour of dashi seaweed stock, Dr Kikunae Ikeda from Tokyo Imperial University uncovered a technique to obtain crystalline monosodium glutamate. This was the core of dashi flavour: not bitter, salty, sour or sweet. He named this fifth basic taste umami after a Japanese word for "delicious". Ikeda was not the first to describe the flavour – French gastronome Brillat-Savarin used the term "osmazome" to describe what "gives game and venison its peculiar flavor" in 1825. Mandarin speakers have been calling the same taste xiānwèi (鲜味) for even longer. Unlike the other terms, umami gained traction in the English language.

Umami is a flavour that has always been prized. Asparagus, tomatoes (especially their seeds) are packed with the rich glutamate. Cheeses like parmesan are full of them. It is the amino acid that slowly builds up in jamon iberico over its two year curing process and in the shorter fermentation of olid Southeast Asian fish pastes such as prahok, nam pla and padaek. Free glutamates are what makes Vegemite, Marmite and Worcestershire sauce so addictive. Vegemite alone is 1.4% glutamate.

Commercial production of MSG began in 1909, lead by Saburosuke Suzuki who went on to found the business synonomous with MSG, Aji-no-moto ("essence of taste"). The first MSG was derived from dashi, just as Ikeda had patented but later was processed in gigantic quantities by fermenting beets, starch or sugar, as it still is today at a quantity of roughly 1.5 million tons per annum. Processed food manufacturers were quick to discover that MSG could simulate the flavour of more complex and expensive foods: why use veal stock or parmesan cheese when a cheap and virtually indestructible powder could suffice and bulk up a weak product?

In the Australian industrial food system, it weaves its way into most processed foods (and chicken noodle soup) as Flavour Enhancer (621) or as something beginning with the words hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast or in the case of Vegemite, "yeast extract". For a foodstuff that is used in a prodigious manner, MSG remains socially unacceptable as an additive to Western home cooking. The MSG stays hidden because of the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" scare in the late 1960s; a myth that still persists today.

In 1968, Dr R.H.M. Kwok published a chatty letter in the New England Journal of Medicine regarding hearsay evidence that between 15 minutes and two hours after eating at Chinese restaurants, some people experienced "numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation". He posited that the cause could be any combination of alcohol, salt or MSG. The blame fell on MSG without any further evidence and "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" was born. It was a much more palatable explanation than drunkenness or an excess of salty snacks.

In the subsequent 40 years, it is impossible to find a study to back Kwok's letter. The latest Australian safety assessment of MSG concludes that MSG alone is not causing the problem:

There is no convincing evidence that MSG is a significant factor in causing systemic reactions resulting in severe illness or mortality. The studies conducted to date on CRS (Chinese Restaurant Syndrome) have largely failed to demonstrate a causal association with MSG. Symptoms resembling those of CRS may be provoked in a clinical setting in small numbers of individuals by the administration of large doses of MSG without food. However, such affects are neither persistent nor serious and are likely to be attenuated when MSG is consumed with food. In terms of more serious adverse effects such as the triggering of bronchospasm in asthmatic individuals, the evidence does not indicate that MSG is a significant trigger factor.

I'm not sure how much MSG-packed, umami chow mein I'll need to serve to convince people that MSG is OK in strict moderation. My vain hope is that it will be less than another 100 years worth.

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Comments (14)

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25 Jul 2014 17:42 AEST

siona

From: kkiio

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21 Apr 2011 5:28 AEST

Spear

From: Man

Jingle

If you want the very best of both worlds, there are plenty of educational video games for kids. Thanks for your post.

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04 Jun 2010 12:01 AEST

Henk van der Gaast

From:

MSG teehee

"Lets face it Bob, you're not here for the hunting" Guys, get a list of all the foods that have 2 or more grams of glutamic acid per 100g. Just don't eat those and leave them for us. I have been sneak feeding folk MSG (added) for years. Without glutamic acid you cant think. Maybe that's the problem. at 6g/kg body safety limits (defined as no perceptable damage) any asian restaurant restaurant would have to be shovelling 300g into your 50kg partner to even have a perceptible effect.

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09 Jan 2010 8:08 AEST

Eleorc

From:

MSG and Green Tea

MSG or any free glutamate is harmful to your health. Unless you drink green tea with it (high levels of thianine). That's why westerners react to it, and all those missing vital ingredients of a complete Asian diet.

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08 Oct 2009 12:33 AEST

Steve Atkins

From:

Breathe Easier

I am a chronic asthmatic since childhood and had regular shortness of breath after eating snackfoods with 621 (MSG) in them. All the nicest flavoured snackfoods use it. I cut eating packets of Chips,Cheezels,Corn Chips etc out and found to my surprise that my health has been way better ever since I gave them up. It isn't life threatening in my case but the somewhat unwell feeling I used to suffer regularly after eating them is gone. I suggest any asthmatics reading test my theory.

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28 Jun 2009 21:55 AEST

Stathis

From: Melbourne

MSG and Sickness

After suffering palpatations, anxiety attacks, panic attacks and finally nearly fainted, I realized after eating a packet of CC's on an empty stomach and nearly fainting - dizziness that MSG 621 was the cause. I then stopped eating anything that was processed with this additive and to my amazement that results were unbelievable. All the above conditions were eliminated. Today after 1 year I can eat someting with MSG and my body does not react. The buildup of MSG to 38 was so immense.

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10 Apr 2009 16:24 AEST

fofo

From:

msg

i agree with the far north vn - china border fare... years back the truck stop foods were really limited and plenty of times the vendors would reinforce instant noodles with generous ladle fulls of good ol ajinomoto, itchy cheeks and dizzy spells... either msg or i was plenty hungry! Footscray's noodle joints are also prone to heavy doses of msg... you leave with pins and needle like numbness in the cheeks.... hubby thinks its after effects of chilli oil....but ...Pho better at home!

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12 Dec 2008 13:19 AEST

BB

From: Heidelberg

Amazement

You'd be amazed how much MSG is in Western food - just look for Yeast Extract on all the labels.

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09 Oct 2008 13:33 AEST

JP

From: Melbourne

100 yr of MSG

i think MSG are the same as the western kind of chicken stock powder.

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08 Oct 2008 23:05 AEST

Phil Lees

From: Melbourne

MSG

I understand the "too much umami" feeling - but I also get it when I eat too much other glutamate-rich food. I wonder if many of the reactions to msg are actually psychosomatic reactions to the feeling of eating too much umami, especially if you don't eat umami things very often.

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About this Blog

A blog about what the world eats, when and where it eats it, and why it matters to us all. Only much less ambitious than that sounds and with more excruciating puns.

Phil Lees grew up in rural Victoria, the first generation in his family to not have lived on the farm and thereby not slaughter their own meat.

In 2005 he moved to Cambodia and started the nation’s first food blog, Phnomenon.com, named after the best pun that he has ever made. It turns out that Cambodian food is delicious and unlike the warnings in most guidebooks, is not likely to kill you with any immediacy. Gridskipper called him a “national treasure”. Lonely Planet’s Greater Mekong guide called him “the unofficial pimp of Cambodian cuisine”. The New York Times laughed at a funny hotdog he saw.

Phil makes a mean sausage, a hoppy pale ale, a modest laksa. He owns three barbecues and is in the market for a fourth.

 
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