MSG Decoded: Evrerything You Wanted To Know About (or Not) MSG

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No, it's not short for "messaging."

We've all hear of it. Nowadays, we all hear about foods not containing it, and how that's supposed to be attractive to us for some reason. Yet most of us (a) have no idea why and (b) what MSG even is. It's everywhere -- in your food, when you go out to dinner, when you buy your favorite crackers, even in the shampoo you use! Some joke it's the Addiction Ingredient manufacturers sprinkle on potato chips or your favorite cookie that's the reason why "you can't eat just one." And in part, that is true.

MSG or Monosodium Glutamate is a a sodium salt of the glutamic amino acids. Translation: it's salty and natural. For example, this amino acid is naturally found in seaweed and Japanese cuisine has been using it for a thousand years to season their food. In the early 1900s, a Japanese scientist successfully separated it out and produced it into a crystalized form, just like ordinary table or kosher salt (not sea salt...that's natural from the actual sea). MSG was then pattened, packaged, and sold as an ingredient to cook with just like we would with salt. Here's what it looks like in packaged form:

And a close up of the crystals:

As you can see, they are differently shaped than a regular salt crystal -- thinner and longer rectangles than a more square and clustered crystal of a kosher or sea salt.
MSG is also used as a flavor enhancer. In the late '90s two researchers from the University of Miami claim to have discovered another taste bud, which they named "umani." Umani means "yummy" in Japanese, and is a taste bud that seems to be quite sensitive to MSG, which gives a meat-like flavor. When this taste bud is stimulated, it stimulates your appetite so you want more. Hence, the "I can't eat just one" phenomenon.
So what's the big deal then?
Monosodium glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid in proteins. As stated above, it's found in abundance for example, in seaweed. It's also found in other plants and animal proteins. Our bodies even make its own amount of this amino acid. It makes enough to the point where our body does not require us to ingest more of it, like water or vitamins. Although naturally found in other products, Japanese scientists and manufacturers figured a way to reproduce the same amino acid from semi-non-natural forms. By using controlled bacteria in the fermentation process, they reproduced this same amino acid. The "problem" of MSG as produced this way lies in this bacterial fermentation process. It is not the natural way this amino acid is formed in our bodies or in seaweed. And there have been reports of subsequent allergies to the bacteria that are used in this fermentation process.
Hence, we hear MSG is bad.
Some of the more common allergies to MSG include more traditional allergic reactions (trouble breathing, swelling, nausea, headache, asthma symptoms, dizziness, facial pressure), stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, joint aches and pains, sleepiness and lethargy. Other reactions reported but not completely substantiated include mood swings, depression, hyperactivity, disorientation, and insomnia to name a few. Across the board the side effects affect the brain, which is why MSG is of particular concern.
There have been studies done but given that MSG is still a relatively "new" product on the market (in major circulation since the late '60s), it is difficult to tell exactly how the human body processes this manufactured amino acid, and what (if any) side effects are actually directly related to it.
Regardless of which side the experts are on, both sides agree that MSG in large quantities and repeated, consistent use is probably not a good thing. MSG in moderate usage (ordering in Chinese tonight?) is probably ok. But as a mother myself, I get a little nervous about giving it to my children at all.
Most of the time we don't even know if we're buying products with MSG in them. Here's how to tell:
  • it will actually say MSG or monosodium glutamate in the list of ingredients
  • also known as Ajinomoto, Vetsin, and Accent

It is often found:

  • in most fast food restaurants
  • in seasoning spice blends (not individual spices like ground cinnamon or dried thyme)
  • pre-prepared stocks and bouillon cubes
  • condiments like bbq sauce, salad dressing, steak sauce, worchester sauce, ketchup, mayo
  • soy sauces, tamarind (naturally present)
  • powdered seasoned items (boxed rice mixes, flavor packets like taco seasoning mix)
  • dairy products (milk solids and proteins)
  • convenience foods (chips, crackers, candies, quick meals)
  • deli meats, sausages

And is found naturally in:

  • tomatoes
  • mushrooms
  • corn
  • soybeans
  • peas
  • wheat & barley
  • beer (by way of wheat, barley, yeast)
  • yeast
  • meat
  • fish
  • milk
  • cheese (by way of milk)

MSG can also be found in shampoos, deodorants, creams, medications (both topical and ingested) and other products.

It's often sprayed on growing fruits and vegetables.

MSG is banned by law to be included in organic foods, but sometimes technically it is still present (as in the milk solids described above). Sometimes during the breakdown of yeast, MSG will form. Therefore, if a product labeled as organic includes yeast or a yeast extract, it will probably also include some amount of MSG. That's why it is also found in breads, desserts and beer.

For the most part it seems MSG as a natural element is harmless to humans. Afterall, the human race has been consuming proteins, fish, milk, cheeses, and wheat and barley (and frankly, drinking beer) for thousands of years with no major implications. I think what concerns some people is the unnatural manufacturing of it by using bacteria and the side effects that might be coming from those in elevated amounts. Let's be honest -- our ancestors weren't consuming steaks with A1 sauce, beef tacos with powdered seasoning packets, or potato chips on a regular basis. And what is of concern is how easily these MSG-laden foods are given to our children. A typical lunch for me growing up was a sandwich (deli meat, bread, mayo/mustard all have msg), a helping of chips (msg), some sort of cookie or candy for dessert (msg) and fruit drink. And that was pretty standard back then and even now. And in our culture where we are so quick to do the fast food thing or order take-out...the levels of MSG add up in one week considerably.

Here is a great link for more information if you think you do have an MSG allergy or wish to read up on food to avoid.

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