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What is Monosodium Glutamate?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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Monosodium glutamate, commonly abbreviated MSG, was developed by a Japanese food chemist around 1907. He based his developmental research on the ancient use of seaweed as a flavor enhancer in Asian dishes, but the end result is a man-made commercial product. It is used extensively in Asian recipes.

This additive is a sodium salt derivative of a natural amino acid called glutamate. Glutamate itself is extremely common — practically every plant and animal species contains some. Bacteria that consume this amino acid excrete glutamic acid. The commercial production of MSG requires large vats of harmless bacteria to convert glutamate from sugars or starches into this acid, which is then allowed to evaporate, and the remaining brownish white or white crystals are sold as pure monosodium glutamate.

Monosodium glutamate is almost completely tasteless by itself. What it does is enhance the flavors of certain savory or meaty foods by awakening special taste buds on the tongue. It is thought that a fifth taste sense called umami is responsible for the pleasant flavor of a steak or vegetables in a savory sauce. Critics of MSG suggest that properly seasoned meats and vegetables shouldn't need such flavor enhancement, but this additive does seem to bring out more of the food's natural essences.

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The use of this substance has become very controversial in recent years. Although the US Department of Agriculture and other enforcers of food safety have long held that MSG is generally considered safe, critics have cited numerous incidents of a condition sometimes known as Chinese Restaurant Headache. Some people have a natural sensitivity towards the glutens found in this substance, and have a reaction similar to a wheat allergy or a reaction to shellfish. Approximately an hour after consuming a meal containing MSG, certain people may experience symptoms ranging from a rash to a migraine-level headache or even anaphylactic shock. For this reason, many Asian restaurants have voluntarily stopped using MSG altogether or have specific notifications about its use.

Monosodium glutamate can be purchased as a separate ingredient, primarily in Asian grocery stores, or found in popular steak seasonings or tenderizers. Those who are sensitive to the additive should also look out for other ingredients such as hydrolyzed soy proteins. These ingredients also contain glutens and are occasionally found in foods that claim to be free of MSG.

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anon330789
Post 5

It never occurred to me that I had a reaction against msg, but I gradually over the years (I'm a slow learner). I realized I couldn't sleep on those nights I'd been to my Chinese takeaway. I asked if they could stop adding msg, and suddenly I was sleeping well again.

anon166845
Post 3

My comments on M.S.G.: I have never used MSG in my cooking as a chef (in my work, ever). For many years. however, I have used it in my cooking at home for myself and home dinner parties.

I would go to Chinatown in London and talk to Chinese people about their use of MSG and I was surprised (but not really) to hear that most Asian women use it in their cooking for their entire family, including children, and none of them ever commented on any health concerns. In fact, a lot of Asian women would say, "Our Grandmother used to use it and so do we".

The first thing I would like to say is that MSG heightens

the so-called fifth sense, bu in fact I would call it the seventh sense considering that the tongue has six senses-- umami. The famous British TV Chef (Heston) has been taking the concept of 'Umami' to develop menus on airlines and submarines where altitude and depth induce a dramatic reinterpretation of people's taste perceptions.

The question is, "Is he using the old Japanese tradition of seaweed extract Umami' or is he using MSG,”(if it's good it is derived from seaweed or soy). Well, one would think that for commercially viable purposes, British Airways and the Royal Forces would just use M.S.G.

I had a friend who simply despised MSG, complaining of dry mouth, shocking headaches and (I know this sounds a bit mean) when he stayed with me, I cooked with MSG and he had no ill symptoms whatsoever. In fact, he would rave about the food.

I do, however, believe that one can get to much of a good thing, i.e., the more you overload your senses, the more they expect (human condition, habitually dependent, routing driven and sensory addictive). I even use MSG when I cook for friends with asthma and allergies (with their permission) and they do not talk of any ill effects.

Some physical reactions to foods can be psychosomatic and others can be attributed to a genuine food intolerance reaction. My use of MSG has never harmed anyone and it is in just about every food we eat but I guess the point is, "do you want to use it or not".

anon165560
Post 2

most people who are lactose intolerant suffer from bloating after consuming products containing msg.

anon92299
Post 1

Maybe if more people report this allergy/intolerance to MSG, it would be more recognized by doctors and health officials. My son is MSG intolerant. We only realized what was wrong when he was three years old.

He had diarrhea, a rash, headaches, stomach cramps, pain in his arms and legs, general bad behavior and if he really had a lot of MSG he would hallucinate and get paranoid. The next day he would be extremely depressed.

We are experts now on foods containing MSG and manage very well without it.

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