How to count on food

Now we come to one of the most com­mon ad­di­tives on la­bels – E621 or MSG, to add a savoury taste. And the good news is, it’s not all bad news.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - Star2@thestar.com.my

YOU are prob­a­bly aware that hu­mans have five main taste sen­si­tiv­i­ties in the mouth; namely bit­ter, salt, sweet, sour and umami. There are claims of other taste sen­sa­tions such as kokumi (an ex­ten­sion of umami ex­pressed as hearti­ness or “rich­ness”, such as in ma­ture cheeses and slow-cooked foods), fats, and per­haps also starches (par­tic­u­larly the shorter-chain car­bo­hy­drates) – and on the sur­face, the claims seem quite plau­si­ble though due to ge­netic dif­fer­ences in hu­mans, it is pos­si­ble that th­ese ad­di­tional tastes may not be ex­pe­ri­enced as com­monly as the main five tastes.

Re­gard­less of whether hu­mans ex­pe­ri­ence five, seven or eight tastes, food sci­en­tists know a lot about the chem­i­cals that trig­ger taste cells in hu­man taste buds (a taste bud is nor­mally a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent taste cells) – and hence there is an as­sort­ment of com­pounds which can be in­tro­duced to pro­cessed foods to ren­der them much more at­trac­tive to eat.

The bit­ter prob­lem

At this point, the bit­ter taste sense war­rants a lit­tle fur­ther dis­course – it is the most sen­si­tive taste in most hu­mans and prob­a­bly evolved to pro­tect us from in­gest­ing poi­sonous foods.

As a re­sult, hu­mans gen­er­ally do not like food which is sig­nif­i­cantly bit­ter, apart from cof­fee, tea, beers, cer­tain veg­eta­bles and some al­co­holic cock­tails. Chil­dren also have up to three times as many taste cells as adults and this ex­plains why many kids are par­tic­u­larly averse to bit­ter foods such as broc­coli, sprouts, mush­rooms, cabbages, et cetera – they tend to slowly lose this an­tipa­thy as they grow up.

The sense of bit­ter is ac­tu­ally pretty in­ter­est­ing as hu­mans can sense bit­ter in many, many thou­sands of sep­a­rate com­pounds, and if you are cu­ri­ous about how this works, a lit­tle sum­mary can be found on: http://www.thestar.com.my/life­style/ food/fea­tures/2014/08/24/cu­ri­ous-cook-our­in­cred­i­ble-sense-of-taste/

The prob­lem is that some com­mon food ad­di­tives are par­tic­u­larly bit­ter chem­i­cals and mass-pro­duced food needs to ad­dress the gen­eral taste pref­er­ences of large pop­u­la­tions – hence bit­ter­ness in pro­cessed foods is a prob­lem which needs to be elim­i­nated, or at least masked.

A clas­sic ex­am­ple is drinks con­tain­ing caf­feine, which is a very bit­ter com­pound in its nat­u­ral state – as a re­sult prac­ti­cally all com­mer­cially pack­aged caf­feine drinks are se­verely over­loaded with su­gars or sweet­en­ers to mask the bit­ter­ness of caf­feine.

There are around a dozen syn­thetic com­pounds which can block some of the bit­ter sen­sa­tion – how­ever, they are not very ef­fi­cient as they can­not block all the bit­ter taste cells, so th­ese com­pounds are not so com­monly used.

There­fore, bit­ter­ness in pro­cessed foods usu­ally need some form of mask­ing, usu­ally with su­gars and salt. If there ex­ists an ef­fec­tive way to re­duce the taste of bit­ter­ness in foods, it is fea­si­ble that the su­gar or salt con­tent in many pro­cessed foods can be re­duced by very sig­nif­i­cant amounts.

As a lit­tle di­gres­sion, when look­ing into bit­ter-tast­ing food chem­i­cals like E202 (potas­sium sor­bate), E326 (potas­sium lac­tate), et cetera, I came across E211 (sodium ben­zoate) which is com­monly used as a preser­va­tive agent in dairy, meat and other prod­ucts due to its an­ti­sep­tic prop­er­ties – E211 is a cu­ri­ous com­pound as it can taste ei­ther salty, sweet, bit­ter or have no taste at all. How this hap­pens, I have no idea but it ap­pears to be linked to ge­net­ics.

The savouries

Re­turn­ing back to the main sub­ject, apart from some ex­cep­tions, the E6xx num­bers deal mostly with ad­di­tives which en­hance the umami as­pects of food – ba­si­cally, the savoury taste that we en­joy when eat­ing good meats, fine cheeses and de­li­cious stocks.

The most com­mon ad­di­tive in this range by far is E621 (monosodium glu­ta­mate or MSG), the umami-in­duc­ing chem­i­cal of­ten vil­i­fied by self-right­eous health web­sites and var­i­ous un­in­formed peo­ple – and this gauche prej­u­dice war­rants some com­ment.

Re­al­ity and MSG

Much re­search have con­firmed very low lev­els of MSG tox­i­c­ity in hu­mans – poor re­search re­sults in the past ob­tained us­ing test ro­dents ig­nored the facts that (i) in­fant ro­dents are sus­cep­ti­ble to MSG due to dif­fer­ences in their Blood-Brain Bar­rier (BBB), and (ii) they were in­jected with doses of MSG im­pos­si­ble to achieve when scaled up to hu­man di­etary con­sump­tion lev­els – in any case, hu­mans do not in­ject them­selves with strong so­lu­tions of MSG.

How­ever, some asth­mat­ics may re­act to pure MSG in­gested with­out food and there may be a very small sub-set of hu­mans who may ex­pe­ri­ence a mi­nor al­lergy to MSG (pos­si­bly due to ge­net­ics), though no such gene has cur­rently been iden­ti­fied.

Im­por­tantly, to date, there are no known hu­man deaths which can be di­rectly linked to the con­sump­tion of MSG. There is also no con­clu­sive ev­i­dence of any link be­tween MSG and obe­sity, though it is likely hu­mans might pre­fer to eat more food en­hanced with MSG.

Once di­gested, the sodium and glu­ta­mate mol­e­cules in MSG get un­linked and the freed glu­ta­mate is chem­i­cally equiv­a­lent to glu­tamic acid which is an amino acid found in prac­ti­cally all pro­teins – the resid­ual sodium is used by the body as an elec­trolyte or re­moved via the kid­neys.

The body also pro­duces glu­ta­mate it­self as part of its meta­bolic pro­cesses.

Some con­fu­sion may have arisen from the fact that ex­cess MSG in the brain can be an ex­ci­to­toxin (a com­pound which kills brain cells) – how­ever, there is no proof that di­etary MSG can cross the hu­man BBB and kill cells in the brain (though this is not true of test baby ro­dents).

As such, all the ev­i­dence sug­gests that MSG is a safe com­pound when in­gested nor­mally with food – there­fore the Chi­nese restau­rant syn­drome that some peo­ple com­plain about is more likely linked to foods with pos­si­bly ex­ces­sive salt, su­gar or other in­gre­di­ents rather than MSG.

Ob­jec­tions to MSG

By the way, please do not think that I am

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