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MSG – Friend or Foe?


Editor’s comment: Chemically-made MSG is out there and everywhere… except in organic food products. That’s just one more reason why so many people believe organically certified manufactured foods may be so much better for your health than non-organic versions. Products like ready meals, soups, sauces, crisps, pasties… the list goes on and on. They all usually contain chemically-manufactured MSG, unless they are organic. Save yourself the bother of reading the small print – just treat yourself to organic foods, as they are legally bound to never contain chemically-manufactured MSG.

As an inveterate cheap eater, I have sucked down the most MSG laden day-glo glop available — stuff that does not deserve to be called food, much less, Chinese food — and never felt so much as a twinge. More sensitive souls, however, have suffered a broad range of MSG-related symptoms including itchiness, numbness, headache and nausea. If you believe everything you read about MSG you might think the acronym stands for Master Satan’s Goodies. So why are people driven into states of hysteria by these three little letters? Is MSG really responsible for all the ills of modern society or does it simply have a bad PR rep?

The answer to these questions depends upon where you fall in the great MSG debate. Whether you’re a card-carrying member of the ‘Glutes’ or if you count yourself among the forces committed to battling their global conspiracy. Both sides employ scientific studies, pundits and press releases to plead the truth for their case. If you believe the anti-glutes, every time you feel vaguely out of sorts, blame MSG. MSG Symptom Complex (AKA ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’) has even been blamed for a number of deaths, including that of a young Australian girl who died from a severe asthma attack after dinner in a Chinese restaurant. But before it became the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry this much-maligned white powder had rather humble beginnings.

In 1907, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda sat to a bowl of tofu in dashi (a kelp-based broth) and pondered dashi’s peculiar ability to pump up the flavor of other foods. Being a curious little dickens, Professor Ikeda hastened to his laboratory bench to conduct many soup based experiments until he succeeded in extracting crystals of glutamic acid, one of the 20 common amino acids of which proteins are built. The Professor found that glutamate had a distinctive taste and he named it “umami” or as Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten terms it “Supreme Deliciousness!” Umami is difficult to translate, suggested English equivalents include savoury, pungent, and meaty, but none of these words do justice to the term — umami implies a combination of all senses, not just taste. It has even been compared to sex, and has more than a whiff of the mystical.

In 1909, MSG entered the marketplace as Aji-no-moto, a product so successful, the company subsequently renamed itself. MSG lasts forever, and because it has no smell or taste, it could be used in different dishes to enhance the flavour of the food. In essence — an ideal seasoning. Today, the Ajinomoto Group’s 15 factories supply about one third of the 1.5 million-ton global market for monosodium glutamate.

Now for the bad news… Like other white powders that induce mystical feelings, MSG is probably not very good for you.

Scientists at the University of Miami School of Medicine recently discovered “that adding monosodium glutamate makes food taste better and makes you want to eat more.” And eating more is a big problem. Some people believe MSG to be at the heart of the recent soaring statistics of morbid obesity in the industrialised countries of the world. Studies have been done showing a causal link as far back as 1969, when Dr. John W. Olney found his lab rats became grotesquely obese when fed MSG. In addition, the rats suffered brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders.

Jack Samuel, president of Truth in Labeling, says Olney’s lab rats “looked like hockey pucks, perfectly round.” Which describes a fair number of US citizens at the moment. Samuel makes a compelling case. He is not a Quixotic foodie tilting at corporate windmills but a well spoken man in his 60′s who believes that the things we put on and in our food will have a far more profound impact on our lives than almost anything else. But “avoiding Chinese food will do little to help a person avoid MSG,” explains Debbie Anglesey of Msgmyth. “There is hardly an item on supermarket shelves, whether, bagged, bottled, frozen or canned, that does not contain added glutamate.”

“The glutes make the tobacco industry look like choir boys. If you put a cigarette in your mouth, you usually notice, but MSG can sneak in from any number of different sources and you might never know” says Jack Samuel. Reading the reams of material devoted the evil of MSG, you can’t help but draw parallels to the tobacco industry. In 1991, Don Hewett, Executive Producer of “60 Minutes” was quoted as saying that he’d never had so much pressure applied to him by industry as he had prior to the airing of the show’s MSG segment. Although a Russell Crowe-type “Insider” hasn’t emerged to spill the beans as it were, the alleged safety of MSG continues to be challenged by a number of recent studies.

In February 2003, the Food and Drug Administration in the USA released a study again decrying the safety of the substance. Anti-MSG’ers have come out swinging, maintaining that the FDA is in the pocket of the multinationals and simply cannot be trusted nor believed.

The official corporate line is that “There is no difference between glutamate found in natural foods (such as tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli) and that added as MSG.” But oddly, despite its decried safety, most manufacturers feel the need to disguise it: MSG is often labeled as “textured protein”, “yeast extract”, or “glutamic acid”, “hydrolised vegetable protein”, in fact any number of other less contentious names.

Having heard from the cons, what about the pro’s? What does Ajiinomoto have to say? Is MSG really the devil’s food, or is the great glutamate debate merely conspiracy theory at its worst? Both Ajiinomoto and their US subsidiaries referred me to their website msgfacts.com but were otherwise entirely circumspect about divulging information. As one employee put it: “My company is very sensitive… Ajinomoto have been attacked by the mass media for almost 100 years.” Meanwhile, does Thailand know something we don’t? Recently, the Bangkok Post reported that the Education Ministry of Thailand banned the use of MSG in school meals, and any firms found to be using MSG in food that is supplied to schools could face legal action.

The bottom line might just be money. Adding MSG allows manufacturers to use cheaper ingredients, cutting production costs and adding up to higher profits. While people get fatter, and the FDA continues to list it as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe), the acronym MSG might come to stand for Massive Suckers Growing.

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