Monosodium Glutamate- A Divided World

Monosodium glutamate, frequently called MSG, is widespread in Asian cooking. Experts frequently debate whether its use is bad for your health (or even good for you).

Although many westerners live in fear of MSG, Japan, where use of the food additive is common, is widely regarded as one of the world’s healthiest cultures. However, on visiting a local Shanghainese restaurant at the weekend where the owner advertises food cooked with quality oil, filtered water and no MSG, it is clear that concern over MSG is now coming to China. But are we right to be so concerned with MSG; it is partly natural after all…

What is MSG?

Professor Ikeda discovered a fifth taste bud on the tongue known as “Umami” in 1909, a savoury taste. Ikeda identified that a natural compound known as “glutamic acid”, picked up by this fifth taste bud, was present in many savoury foods. Ikeda created a version of this compound that was stable enough to be added to food, dissolvable in water and storeable by adding salt and water- MSG.

In summary, MSG can be added to food enhancing flavour and taste of savoury foods.

What are its health effects? 

MSG came under scrutiny in 1968 after a doctor nonchalantly referenced side effects – sweating, heart palpitations and nausea – after eating a Chinese meal; this bred the term ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’. Despite this widely referred to ‘medical’ condition, there appears to be no proof of MSG causing these symptoms.

Some countries have added MSG to their food additives list, allowing regulation and control over the food industry adding it to foods. However, it is regarded as a safe food by the Food and Drug Administration, EU, Britain and Australia. Despite this, the fear of food additives lives on in the West; with continued criticism and skepticism from the experts over the safety of MSG.

To overcome this un-abating concern the food industry have given MSG numerous different names (e.g. glutavene, calcium caseinate, autolyzed yeast extract) and is now almost impossible to identify on most food packaging.

To rub salt into the wounds of its detractors, producers of MSG are now promoting the product as a health food – having a third of the sodium of table salt and is generally used in smaller quantities – that creates flavour whilst reducing sodium content. However, this evidence is also unsubstantiated.

It is difficult to say what the consensus on MSG will be in the next few years, a banned “E number” or a health saviour in a society with increasing heart disease? We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, it won’t stop me eating delicious Chinese food but if I can avoid it, I probably will.

Sophie Thomas, Dietitian

 

Tordoff, M et al.(2012) ‘No effects of monosodium glutamate consumption on the body weight or composition of adult rats and mice.’ Physiology and Behaviour. 107(3):338-345
Mouitsen, (2012) ‘Umami flavour as a means of regulating food intake and improving nutrition and health.’ Nutrition and Health(1) pp.56-75