TRIAL BY TONGUE

IS MSG RE­ALLY THAT BAD FOR YOU?

Asian Geographic - - Picturesque -

glu­ta­mate (“MSG”) has gained a some­what no­to­ri­ous sta­tus glob­ally as a foodie vil­lain – a wolf in sheep’s cloth­ing. The Ja­panese in­gre­di­ent has been blamed for mak­ing peo­ple nau­seous, even ill, in what has been dubbed “Chi­nese Restau­rant Syn­drome” (CRS), with symp­toms in­clud­ing headaches and asthma.

And yet in most of Asia, it ap­pears that peo­ple hold no fear of MSG, which has been cred­ited with the sen­sa­tion of “umami”: the fifth taste. In fact, the Ja­panese have gone so far as to pay pub­lic homage to it, in the form of the Yoko­hama Ra­men Mu­seum and Amuse­ment Park. As food critic Jef­frey Stein­garten fa­mously chal­lenged in 1999, if MSG is so bad for you, “Why doesn’t ev­ery­one in China have a headache?”

Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have at­tempted to un­pack the con­nec­tion be­tween the con­sump­tion of MSG and the symp­toms it is blamed for. Sci­en­tific stud­ies have re­peat­edly shown that MSG is safe at or­di­nary lev­els of con­sump­tion. And yet, re­mark­ably lit­tle is un­der­stood in the gen­eral pub­lic about this food ad­di­tive: what it is, how it’s used, and why it is con­tro­ver­sial.

The story of MSG be­gins with one Pro­fes­sor Kiku­nae Ikeda, a Ja­panese chemist at the turn of the cen­tury. By 1901, he and his team had il­lus­trated the hu­man tongue, map­ping out the lo­ca­tions of our tastes: sweet, sour, bit­ter and salty. How­ever, Ikeda felt that some­thing was miss­ing – that “taste which is com­mon to as­para­gus, toma­toes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes”. He iden­ti­fied this “fifth taste” by the Ja­panese word umami, which loosely trans­lates to “savoury”, or, lit­er­ally, “de­li­cious­ness”. He launched a sci­en­tific mis­sion to iso­late the key in­gre­di­ent at the heart of this tip-ofy­our-tongue “de­li­cious­ness”.

What he found was what we now know as MSG – the sodium salt of glu­tamic acid. As Ikeda rightly as­sessed, this oc­curred nat­u­rally in var­i­ous foods, such as sea­weed and shi­take mush­rooms; it was sub­se­quently also found in hu­man breast milk. Ikeda was able to iso­late this in­gre­di­ent and trans­formed it into a crys­tal that could be added to foods where it did not oc­cur nat­u­rally. He patented this method, and be­gan sell­ing his brand of MSG, Aji-no-moto, com­mer­cially.

The prod­uct was a huge suc­cess, and within a mat­ter of years, it was be­ing sold all over Asia. By the 1950s, it was in the United States – at a key time, too, as man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cessed food was boom­ing.

How­ever, in 1968, Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a med­i­cal op-ed in which he ob­served: “I have ex­pe­ri­enced a strange syn­drome when­ever I have eaten out in a Chi­nese restau­rant… The syn­drome, which usu­ally be­gins 15 to 20 min­utes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, with­out hang­over ef­fect. The most prom­i­nent symp­toms are numb­ness at the back of the neck, grad­u­ally ra­di­at­ing to both arms and the back, gen­eral weak­ness and pal­pi­ta­tions…”. This launched in­ves­ti­ga­tions into MSG and its ef­fects. In 1969, Dr John Ol­ney con­ducted a study in which he force-fed new­born mice with large doses of MSG, and re­ported that they suf­fered brain le­sions. A year later, a hu­man study had par­tic­i­pants in­gest MSG daily for six weeks – but found no ad­verse re­ac­tions. By the 1980s, sci­en­tific cir­cles had grown tired of the de­bate and in­con­clu­sive stud­ies. Since then, pub­lic or­gan­i­sa­tions – in­clud­ing the United Na­tions food agen­cies, the Euro­pean Union, and sev­eral other gov­ern­ments – have de­clared MSG as per­fectly safe.

How­ever, this did lit­tle to curb the me­dia storm sur­round­ing the MSG food scare. Rus­sell Blay­lock’s book Ex­ci­to­tox­ins:thetastethatkills drove a nail in the prover­bial cof­fin in es­tab­lish­ing pub­lic opin­ion as gen­er­ally anti-msg. It is still widely ac­cused of caus­ing asthma at­tacks, mi­graines, de­hy­dra­tion, chest pains, de­pres­sion, at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der, Alzheimer’s and Parkin­son’s dis­ease, amongst oth­ers, although by and large, sci­en­tists pro­claim this as un­sub­stan­ti­ated. How­ever, there is a group of re­spected nu­tri­tion­ists who main­tain that MSG is re­spon­si­ble for caus­ing be­havioural prob­lems in chil­dren – but ranks are still di­vided.

One thing is clear: the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing MSG is far from over! ag

He iden­ti­fied this “fifth taste” by the Ja­panese word umami, which loosely trans­lates to “savoury”, or, lit­er­ally, “de­li­cious­ness”

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oci­ated with health ben­e­fits

2A re­cent study showed that peo­ple who ate spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14 per­cent lower risk of dy­ing pre­ma­turely. Eat hot, live longer!

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Peo­ple suf­fer­ing from arthri­tis, shin­gles – even some kinds of headaches – can buy cream with cap­saicin as the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent to re­lieve pain Ana­heim ch i l l i pep­per ( 500– 1000 SHU) Na­tive to Cal i for­nia, USA Sweet b e l l pep­per ( 0– 100 SHU) Na­tive to Mex­ico, Cen­tral Amer­ica, and north­ern South Amer­ica Lemon Drop Chilli Pep­per ( 15,000– 30,000 SHU) Na­tive to Peru

D id You Know?

Dorset Naga Chilli Pep­per ( 1 m i l l ion– 1.5 mil­lion SHU) ed o n th e Naga ch i l l i , na­tive to Ba ngladesh; de­vel­oped i n Dorset, U K “Drag on’s Breath” ( 2 . 4 8 m i l l ion SHU) De­vel­oped i n Wa les, U K

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