Now and then, we at MDA like to branch out from our usual shrinking violet positions and journey into the precarious territory of current controversy. Today we venture into the debate over a disputed additive/ingredient: MSG—flavor friend or fodder foe?
Let’s break it down.
MSG: What is this stuff anyway?
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG as we commonly know it, is a stabilized, processed version of glutamic acid, which in its unprocessed form, is a common and naturally occurring amino acid found in numerous foods like meats, milk, cheese and certain vegetables. The label MSG is often used to refer to all forms of processed glutamate.
Though originally identified in the 19th Century, MSG wasn’t used until the early 20th Century when it was found by a Japanese researcher in evaporated kombu broth. The researcher recognized the common and appealing taste and patented a large scale production process of MSG in its familiar crystalline form. Today, MSG is produced through the fermentation of molasses, sugar beets/cane, starch or—according to some sources—bacteria. Processed glutamate, according to many non-industry sources, is not chemically identical to the glutamic acid found in unadulterated foods like meat or tomatoes.
What is it used for?
In short, flavor. MSG activates what is now recognized as a fifth taste receptor labeled “umami” (Japanese for savory). MSG has very little taste in and of itself but generally enhances the flavor and general meatiness of many foods.
What types of products have it?
MSG and other free glutamate forms are most often found in traditional Asian dishes and products as well as, more recently, an astounding number of processed foods in the West. Most foods that contain processed glutamate don’t list it as such. Following the first wave of MSG fear in the 1970s (ah, those were the days), the food industry, in its infinite wisdom, chose to simply rename or repackage the ingredient within other substance labels. These aliases continue to exist and have propagated to this day. Examples of MSG-associated ingredients include (but are by no means limited to): gelatin, hydrolyzed/autolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, rice syrup, calcium/sodium caseinate, and textured protein.
What does it do to the body?
This is where things start to get decidedly dicey.
According to many non-industry sources, manufactured glutamate isn’t processed by the body in the same way food-based, unprocessed glutamic acid is because of the different chemical composition of manufactured glutamate, which contains different ratios of glutamic acid forms (L versus D) as well as varying, unspecified contaminants. MSG, unlike food proteins that contain glutamic acid, is very rapidly absorbed within the digestive system.
There is also indication that a certain portion of the population is sensitive to MSG and can experience reactions with symptoms like headache, fatigue, numbness, burning or tingling sensations, nausea and abnormal heartbeat.
MSG is thought by some researchers to be an “excitotoxin,” a kind of chemical transmitter that facilitates brain cell communication and overstimulates or “excites” brain cells to the point of their functional collapse. Excitotoxins have produced brain damage in controversial studies and have been linked to a number of chronic neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, a small number of much publicized studies since the 1960s have suggested that MSG can cause retinal thinning and other eye damage, and impaired appetite regulation communication in the brain.
Caveats and Critiques
Critics of these studies contend that administered dosages far exceed reasonable human intake. Critics of these critics respond that “reasonable human intake” doesn’t consider the physical and neurological vulnerability of children and those sensitive to processed glutamic acid.
Additionally, the presumed “reasonable intake” must be continually redefined with the rapidly increasing inclusion of MSG and other processed glutamic acid substances in a larger share of food products.
The original critics then ask why everyone in Asia seems to be doing dandy. And then there’s the response about a larger number of glaucoma cases in that part of the world.
And the squabbling continues….
The fact is, unless we’re talking about its straight use as a spice in Asian cooking, MSG (in its varying forms) is mostly limited to processed foods. Y’all know the MDA take on those, right?
We’re all about enjoying food. Flavor rules, we wholeheartedly agree. While the jury is still out on the deleterious effects of MSG, there’s enough brouhaha to beg the question: What’s really the big deal in giving it up?
For the food industry, it’s clear. It’s a cheap and easy way to flavor their pseudo-food without having to use naturally occurring substances (like vegetables and herbs) that might offer actual nutritional value.
For the individual cook at home, it’s a matter of making the choice to spend a few extra minutes chopping some bell pepper, adding some herbs, mincing some onion. Your body will thank you for it.
This option is, admittedly, more work and may cost a bit more than the convenient, all-in-one package. However, there’s a legitimate difference between paying for and preparing real food that will serve your body’s needs and opting for a product that uses flavoring compounds like MSG (in whatever form) as a stand in for the real deal.
Let the critics squabble and bicker. Let the researchers continue to probe. It’s important work, after all. Hopefully, the picture will become clearer if the right folks fund the studies. In the meantime, as we say here at MDA, healthy tastes great. Why mess with an already good thing?
What do you think? No harm, no foul; or better safe than sorry?
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