Before We Jump in, What Exactly is Monosodium Glutamate?
Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG for short, is a common food additive that is added to food to enhance the flavor. It is derived from glutamate, or glutamic acid, which is one of the most abundant naturally accruing amino acids. Monosodium glutamate is classified as a food additive (E621) in the European Union and regulations are now in place to determine its use in foodstuffs. It is found in nearly all foods, especially high protein foods such as fish, meat and dairy products, as well as many vegetables.
What is Naturally Occurring Glutamate?
Naturally occurring glutamate is one of the most abundant and important components of proteins. It is considered to be the building blocks of all protein. The human body produces glutamate which plays an important role in normal body functioning. It is a non-essential amino acid, which doesn’t need to be consumed as the body makes its own.
Naturally occurring glutamate helps to take potassium to the brain on its way in to the body and remove toxic ammonia from the brain on the way out, therefore, it is vital for brain function and metabolism. It is also used as energy once it’s broken down, and it can be converted to glutamine amino acid (structurally similar, but with a different function).
Research has shown that naturally occurring glutamate is the main neurotransmitter for the hypothalamus. This section of the brain controls most hormones, pain regulation, eating behaviors, temperature control and sleep habits, it also automatically controls the GI tract, lungs, bladder and heart.
How is MSG Made?
A Japanese chemist/professor named Kikunae Ikeda discovered monosodium glutamate over 100 years ago. He found that its unique flavor enhancing properties could be extracted from a glutamate rich seaweed broth which was historically eaten in the Asian communities. His studies showed that the glutamate provided the savory taste in the soup and so he patented the MSG and started commercial production the following year. For the last few centuries, the production of MSG has been made by fermenting sugar beets, sugar cane, molasses and starch, the process used to ferment it is similar to the way that beers, vinegar, wine and yogurts are made.
Why is MSG Used?
Monosodium Glutamate is used to bring out the best taste in our food, by emphasizing the foods natural flavors. It's used mainly in savory foods, as it does little for sweet foods. It is thought in Japan that MSG is the 'fifth' taste called 'Umami' and has a savory taste, which is why it is added to savory dishes rather than sweet. (The other four tastes are Bitter – Sweet – Sour – Salt). MSG only makes a good taste even better, it can't improve a bad tasting food and is no substitute for low quality ingredients in a recipe.
Is MSG Safe to Eat?
Although the naturally occurring glutamates in food aren’t dangerous, the processed free glutamic acids like MSG are. Having said that, it is generally recognized that adding MSG to foodstuffs is considered safe. There are however, a number of people who appear to be 'sensitive to MSG, though scientific studies have not been able to show a direct link between the consumption of monosodium glutamate and the reported adverse reactions.
'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' used to be blamed on monosodium glutamate because it is widely used in Asian cooking and the first anecdotal report was made after the consumption of a Chinese meal. The symptoms reported were, nausea, sweating, tightness in the chest and burning at the back of the neck. However, it could not be confirmed that the added MSG was to blame and it was thought that the allergies suffered after eating an Asian meal, were more to do with ingredients other than MSG, which were used in the dishes.
For people who suspect that they may be sensitive to MSG, it is advisable to first of all get checked out by your doctor and then try not to consume Asian meals and other processed foods where it is clearly states on the label that it contains MSG.
So is MSG Good or Bad?
MSG can cause the nervous system to become overexcited. It is an excitotoxin, which means that it excites the nerves and causes an inflammatory reaction. Consistent consumption over time will make the nerves start to produce more and more nerve cells that are sensitive to MSG, so the more sensitive cells there are, the stronger the reaction to MSG will be. Regularly eating food with MSG in it, may not appear to cause any reactions now, but that doesn't mean you won't develop a sensitivity to it later on. MSG has a cumulative effect and it builds up over time until it reaches what is called a 'threshold of sensitivity.
..... What About Children?
Studies have shown that naturally occurring glutamate has a major role to play in how the brain is formed during its development, during this development and until the age of around 27. There is a programmed rise and fall in brain glutamate levels, this is a critical function and any disruption in those levels can have grave consequences. A diet high in MSG, especially during pregnancy, increases the developing baby's glutamate levels to twice as high as the mothers levels, which can significantly alter the formation and functions of the baby’s brain. We now know that very high consumption of MSG, or in fact, any excitotoxin, can cause abnormal learning, behavioral and emotional control, endocrine problems and a possible addiction risk later on in the baby's life.
Can You Avoid MSG?
In our Modern day society, it can be very difficult to remove MSG from our diets. Today's eating habits are based around pre-packed foods, ready meals and fast food, even if you want to avoid products with MSG in them, it's still hard to wade through the information on the labels, as most manufacturers aren't very honest about what they add to their products, so you could still be eating MSG that has been 'hidden'. Food companies can claim there is no MSG in their list of ingredients because they didn't actually ‘add’ monosodium glutamate to their product, yet they are allowed to add ingredients that 'contain' MSG.
How to Avoid Consuming MSG
If you prefer to eat as much natural and organic food as possible and make most of your own meals from basic ingredients, then you are well on your way to avoiding large amounts of MSG in your diet, however, it is still difficult to completely clear it from your cupboards. If you want to try to avoid MSG, there are a few basic rules you should try to follow.
1. Avoid Quick, Easy Meals from the Local Store or Supermarket
They are going to be packed with MSG's. Go for ingredients you can prepare a simple dish with, it doesn't have to have all the fancy sauces on it to be nutritious, an omelet with a side salad is far better for you than that pre-packed curry or synthetically enhance burger or pizza. When eating out in a restaurant, check out the 'plain' meals, those that don't have all the fancy names or choice of toppings and sauces, make sure you tell the waiter that you are trying to avoid MSG's.
2. The Typical Chinese Takeaway is Laden with MSG
So opt for somewhere a little safer when ordering a takeaway. If you enjoy your packets of snacks and crisps, go for the 'natural' health snacks or organic treats, they can sometimes be hard to find on the supermarket shelves, and organic food shops tend to be few and far between, but if you are determined to rid your diet of as much MSG as possible, then that extra footwork to find natural foodstuffs is going to be well worth it.
3. Check Your Food Labels
Some other ingredients you might want to check out on food labels are 'hydrolyzed corn, vegetable or wheat protein' and ‘autolyzed yeast extract', the processing of these ingredients involves using MSG but manufacturers aren't legally bound to inform you of that..
.... The Verdict so Far
There have been many studies and research projects on monosodium glutamate, making it one of the most extensively studied food ingredients in modern day food products. The verdict is that so far, the numerous scientific evaluations have concluded that monosodium glutamate is a useful and safe taste enhancer for the processed foods abundant in today’s lifestyle.