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Food Adventures

Food myth #2 – MSG is bad for you
(This article first appeared in Olive magazine)

This week I’ve been dipping into a small plastic capsule to sprinkle something on all my food. It looks beguilingly like Maldon salt, but is actually the scourge of healthy eaters across the globe: MSG.

We hate the idea of chemicals in our foods. ‘E-numbers’, ‘hydrolized protein’, ‘emulsifier’, ‘sodium’ and ‘glutamate’, strike fear into our hearts. I’m sitting here tucking into one of the world’s greatest culinary creations (the Wotsit), and it lists MSG as one of its few ingredients.

We’re right to be concerned, but we sometimes forget that food, like any matter, is just a combination of chemicals, all of which have scary names. E160a, for example, is carrot extract. Hydrolizing protein is how your digestive system breaks down food. When making fresh mayonnaise, fresh egg yolk is an emulsifier, and Sodium Chloride is just salt (an essential part of our diet).

But what about glutamate? Well, it’s the most important amino acid in your blood it’s essential for healthy digestion. It’s used as MSG to make food taste better, but it occurs naturally in huge amounts in Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, peas and giant kelp seaweed. That makes it the building block of two of the world’s great national cuisines: Italian and Japanese, and it’s the key building block of the molecular gastronomist’s slightly fuzzy friend: the 5th taste, otherwise known as umami – or ‘savouriness’.

MSG (the commercial version of glutamate, made from molasses) has been blamed for ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ or CRS – a combination of headache, burning skin and chest pain. 30% of Americans believe that MSG causes this, and in the UK, there’s a general perception that it’s A Bad Thing, despite the fact that we eat, on average, 4g of it per week.

I don’t fancy the idea of adding chemicals in my food, but I also hate the idea of scaremongering influencing what I eat. MSG is one of the most exhaustively researched foods on the planet, yet most studies conclude that MSG is safe, as have the World Health Organisation and the American Medical Association. It’s suggested that histamines contained in soy sauce may be the cause of the CRS problem, and that people are often wrong to blame certain foods for physical and mental problems. That said, a rare study by one William H Yang, MD, did show some symptoms in people who thought that they were already susceptible to CRS, though they were given vast amounts of the stuff.

For my part, my experiment has made no difference to my health whatsoever. In fact, despite hating the concept of MSG, I’m ashamed to say that many meals (with the exception of desserts) have tasted much better with MSG, with flavours more pronounced and overall just…better). The best advice about diet is that given to me by gastroenterologist Mark McAlindon: eat a varied diet of foods you enjoy with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Too much of anything – whether it’s lettuce or MSG – is a bad idea.

As for my Wotsits, seeing MSG on the ingredients on the packet doesn’t make me happy, but you know what? If that’s why they taste like they do, I’d fight to my dying breath to keep it in there.

Here’s the accompanying recipe: Glutamated tuna


Ó Stefan Gates 2005