Did you know that you eat glutamates (including MSG) every day? Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which exists naturally in our body and in breast milk. It’s also in foods like Parmesan, tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, kombu and Vegemite. It’s what gives that delicious umami (savoury, slightly meaty) taste to foods.
It can also be produced by fermenting molasses, sugarcane, sugar beets or tapioca. The result is a white crystalline powder that looks like salt. It’s often added to processed foods like stock, gravy, crisps, noodle cups and even soy sauce. You can also buy the powder and use it to season food.
“Whether it’s present in processed food or it’s naturally occurring, our body can’t tell the difference, it gets digested the same way,” explains Anika Rouf, accredited dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
MSG is deemed safe by food authorities around the world, including our own Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Their official position is that “MSG does not represent a health concern for the general population”.
But many brands and restaurants still advertise in big bold letters that their food doesn’t contain MSG. And a lot of people still avoid eating it.
A stigma that sticks
It’s that year that Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. He shared that he experienced numbness at the back of his neck, weakness and palpitations after eating out at Chinese-American restaurants.
He speculated that it could be because of the high sodium content, the soy sauce or the cooking wine. He also added that others had suggested it could be the MSG.
That’s all it took to kick off the anti-MSG frenzy. Chinese food was suddenly accused of causing headaches, chest pain, nausea and shortness of breath. “A lot of it was based in the racism associated with food, the anti-Chinese racism. In the early days, it was ‘the Chinese restaurants are filthy, they’re full of diseases, they’re killing street cats’,” says TV host and food writer Adam Liaw.
In an episode of his TV show Parts Unknown filmed in Sichuan, the late Anthony Bourdain remarked: “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Racism. 'Oh, I have a headache, it must have been the Chinese guy.'”
But what about the symptoms?
Even if no study makes a link between MSG and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, Food Standards Australia New Zealand states that “a small number of people may experience a mild hypersensitivity-type reaction to large amounts of MSG when eaten in a single meal”, but that “it should pass quickly and do not produce any long-lasting effects”.
A reaction to glutamates wouldn’t be considered an allergy or an intolerance, but a sensitivity. And since the body processes all glutamates the same way, the sensitivity would also be to foods where glutamates naturally occur.
“Most reactions to a Chinese banquet probably have little to do with the MSG, as many of the same people who are ‘MSG sensitive’ have no problems with Vegemite or Parmesan cheese,” writes Merlin Thomas, professor of medicine at Monash University. He adds that “there may be far more dangerous consequences that come from overeating this Christmas”.
“Most reactions to a Chinese banquet probably have little to do with the MSG, as many of the same people who are ‘MSG sensitive’ have no problems with Vegemite or Parmesan cheese.”
If you do experience uncomfortable symptoms when eating certain foods, Liaw says you should talk to a doctor and find out what’s the cause: “The thing I think is very unfortunate about people saying that they have symptoms when they eat MSG is that, if they could accept it wasn’t MSG, they could find out what it was that make them feel that way.” Something like sulphites, amines or soy could be the culprit.
How to harness the power of MSG
MSG makes food tastier and contains one-third of the sodium of table salt. “If we could use MSG as an enhancer and cut down on salt, it would help us,” says Rouf, though she adds that spices and herbs remain the best seasoning option.
“You could use it in aged care [facilities] when people are losing their appetite or their sense of smell. You can make food more palatable,” explains Liaw.
Just like them, you can harness the power of glutamates by cooking with kombu, sardines, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese and so on. If you want to try MSG powder, know that a little goes a long way. In Japan, cucumber with a dash of MSG is a common snack, and it’s not rare to see a bottle of MSG on kitchen tables next to the salt. You can sprinkle it on dishes where you’d use salt, like spaghetti Bolognese, Hainanese chicken rice, roast vegetables and popcorn.
With the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome being debunked by scientists multiple times over the last five decades, it looks like it’s about time we leave the MSG myth behind.
“You have to trust the science,” says Liaw.
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