A few months ago, the government of Mauritius decided to ban ‘Ajinomoto’ – this is how we call monosodium glutamate (MSG) here. And of course, this created a fiery debate between those who believe MSG is harmless and natural and those who deem that MSG is a silent killer that will ‘fry your brain’. At the end of day, it turns out that neither side had the right information. And, in general, making blanket statements is never a wise idea. So if you’re confused about MSG, before you make up your mind about whether to consume it or not, scroll through this article first. I will cover everything you need to know about MSG.
What exactly is MSG? And what is ‘umami’?
Short for monosodium glutamate, MSG is actually the sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid which is commonly referred to as ‘glutamate’. Nowadays, MSG is widely used as a seasoning and flavor enhancer in many foods since it imparts a very distinct savory, meaty and broth-like taste to foods.
So, this would mean that MSG has a pleasant taste, right? After all, wasn’t the fifth sense umami coined when MSG was discovered?
While, it is true that the Japanese word ‘umami’ refers to a delicious savory flavor or ‘a really good taste’, this word was already in use during the Edo period of Japanese history which ended in 1868. MSG was only isolated in 1909 by the Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda who temporarily decided to describe MSG’s taste as ‘umami’ before later deciding to use the term ‘glutamate taste’ instead.
And no, MSG does NOT taste good.
Shocked? Don’t beat yourself up: the food industry has done a pretty good job in making us believe that MSG tastes delicious. However, by itself, MSG is often described as being unpleasantly bitter, salty or soapy! It is when MSG is added in low concentrations to specific foods that the flavor and pleasantness of the food increases.
If this is confusing, think about sodium chloride which is more commonly known as table salt: by itself it isn’t delicious. But adding a little pinch of sea salt to sweet potato chips makes them scrumptious. I mean, nobody (I hope) would find it pleasant to eat a teaspoon of salt… Eating a whole bag of salted crisps, well, that’s a different story!
In the same way, carefully combining table salt with MSG and other chemical additives such as potassium chloride or phosphate salts, amino acids like arginine or nucleotides like adenosine 5’-monophosphate yields the flavor of boiled crab! This taste is often described as ‘umami’.
Note: There is some speculation that the ‘5th taste’ umami (as utilized nowadays) is nothing more but a successful marketing scam. While discussing this is beyond the scope of this article, you may want to know that the study ‘proving’ the existence of this 5th taste was funded, in part, by Ajinomoto.
How is MSG produced?
In the early 1900s, the Japanese biochemist Professor Kikunae Ikeda designed an experiment to determine what gave kombu broth (a type of seaweed also known as ‘kelp’ or ‘konbu’) a taste that was very different from the four well-known tastes (namely sour, sweet, bitter and salty). To do so, the Professor utilized a large amount of kelp soup stock from which glutamic acid was extracted. The glutamic acid was then stabilized by mixing it with salt and water. This marked the ‘birth’ of monosodium glutamate, a white crystal that was easy to store. After patenting MSG, Professor Ikeda then began to market it as Ajinomoto which means ‘essence of taste’.
But times have changed…
MSG is no longer produced using the process described above. That’s because extracting glutamate from seaweed is really time-consuming and not cost effective at all: you can extract only 1g of glutamate from 100g of seaweed!
Professor Ikeda realized that the traditional seaweed and salt water process was unnecessary for the production of stable glutamate (MSG). Instead, MSG could be produced using fermented molasses and wheat.
Eventually, the manufacturers found that almost any protein can be broken down to produce MSG. Today, MSG is now produced on a huge scale using an industrial fermentation process that is way simpler and costs a fraction of the traditional seaweed method.
Which foods contain MSG?
When I talk about MSG with my patients, they often tell me that they don’t consume that flavor enhancer anymore since they avoid Chinese food and don’t keep Ajinomoto at home. Well, a quick virtual tour of their pantry often indicates that their diet is loaded with MSG even if they’re buying foods that proudly boast a ‘MSG-free’ label or don’t list MSG in the ingredient list.
Since MSG is currently added to gazillions of products, it is impossible for me to give you a complete list. However, most of the following foods are often laced with MSG:
- Bottled sauces and gravy mixes
- Bouillon (crystals or cubes)
- Canned and dried soups
- Canned meats
- Fast foods
- Diet foods
- Ready-made meals (the microwave and frozen ones)
- Processed meats (commercial bacon, bologna, ham, hot dogs, sausages, salami)
- Ramen noodles
- Salad dressings – like those from Kraft
- Snacks – like Lays chips, Doritos
Note: Check out the ‘Question & Answer’ section below for a list of ingredients that indicate the presence of ‘hidden’ MSG.
How did the use of MSG become so widespread?
The sales of MSG skyrocketed in Asia within a few years after the company Ajinomoto was set up. However, it was only after World War II that MSG made its debut in the US. It turns out that the catering staff of the US army noticed that the American soldiers preferred the leftover ration packs of the demobilized Japanese army. That’s when they discovered MSG and brought it back to the US. This coincided with the booming of the production of processed foods on a large scale.
One of the issues with mass production and preservation of food (via canning, freezing and pre-cooking on an industrial scale) is that it leads to the loss of flavor. Since MSG was a cheap substitute that was easy to use and improved the taste of practically everything, it soon found its way in:
- Most snacks
- Canned foods such as tuna and soups
- Commercial salad dressings
- Chewing gum
- Processed meats
- Baby food
- Soft drinks
- Ice cream
Are there any natural sources of MSG?
No; but the following foods contain free glutamate (I cover the various forms of glutamate below as well as why it is important to differentiate between them):
- Cow’s milk – 2mg/100g
- Human breast milk – 2mg/100g
- Eggs – 23mg/100g
- Beef (33mg/100g)
- Fish (mackerel) – 22mg/100g
- Chicken – 44mg/100g
- Potatoes – 102mg/100g
- Corn – 130mg/100g
- Oysters – 137mg/100g
- Tomatoes – 140mg/100g
- Broccoli – 176mg/100g
- Mushrooms – 180mg/100g
- Peas – 200mg/100g
- Grape juice – 258mg/100g
- Fresh tomato juice – 260mg/100g
- Walnuts – 658mg/100g
- Soy sauce – 1090mg/100g
- Parmesan cheese – 1200mg/100g
- Roquefort cheese – 1280mg/100g
Glutamic acid, bound glutamate, free glutamate – are they the same thing?
As mentioned earlier, glutamic acid is an amino acid that is naturally present in large amounts in both plant and animal protein. Glutamic acid is considered a non-essential amino acid since the human body is able to produce it even if we don’t get enough from the diet. In other words, glutamic acid is crucial for our body to perform optimally.
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