Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: October 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

MSG - Good or Bad?

MSG – monosodium L-glutamate. One of the most commonly despised ingredients in the US. What is so horrible about this ingredient that hundreds of pages of the Internet are spent on its bashing? I’m not sure why it is so vilified, but I do know quite a bit about the ingredient.

MSG is the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid. It is produced by fermentation of glucose (usually from molasses) to glutamic acid which is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide to produce sodium L-glutamate. In 1908 a Japanese scientist was researching the flavor enhancing properties of a seaweed used in cooking (Laminaria japonica). But MSG does more than “enhance” flavor; in fact, I don’t like that particular description. MSG is more of a potentiator than an enhancer. It attaches to receptors on your taste buds so that you taste things more intensely. It also affects your perception of mouthfeel, complexity and roundness/harmony of flavors. We call this sensation Umami – the fifth flavor (the other four are: sour, sweet, bitter, salty).

Glutamates (there are other salt versions besides sodium) occur naturally in vegetables, meats (beef, poultry, pork, fish), and milk (including human breast milk). Some foods with the highest levels of glutamates include mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, chicken, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce.

Glutamates are often misrepresented as MSG. Many of the websites demonizing this material infer that those of us in the food industry are purposely misleading consumers by hiding MSG in other ingredients such as caseinate, whey protein, yeast extract, gelatin, etc. when in reality these are naturally occurring sources of gluamates and not “hidden” MSG. That is not to say we don’t add MSG to foods, we do, but it is labeled.

If you firmly believe that you react to MSG, then nothing I’m saying is going to change your opinion, and that is fine. (Personally, I have a jar of MSG in my spice rack; I love adding it to soups and gravies.) Avoiding MSG should prove rather easy, glutamates less so, and glutamic acid nearly impossible. (I just have to say, I’ve never heard someone who just ate a big piece of chicken cooked with mushrooms and tomatoes ever complain about symptoms).

There has been and continues to be ongoing research into the effects of MSG consumption. Although to date, nothing conclusive has been produced (and reproduced) to show any negative effect of consumption, if you are at all concerned, make sure you eat other foods along with your MSG. The dilution effect should be enough to ward off any potential side effects. And of course if you are watching your sodium intake, you should be aware of the high sodium content of MSG containing foods.

I hope that this was informative (and no, I do not work for or with any MSG companies – I’m not working any angles here). Please let me know what other questions you have about the foods you eat - I'm here to help!