I think all of us can agree that we may not know what it stands for, but at one time or another you’ve been told to steer clear of the big bad MSG. What you might not have been told is what it is, why it’s used in food, and why we should be rethinking its banned status by society. I’m here to give you the low-down on MSG and what the research says.
The nutrition world always seems to be deduced to the classic black and white ideology. Once a food or nutrient gets one bad review, it gets etched in stone, and that’s it… it’s kind of like when a restaurant gets a bad review and then goes bankrupt the next day. It’s not fair, and from a science perspective, which is changing every single day, it’s impossible to live by that ideology.
Keeping with the restaurant simile, that’s exactly what happened back in the 60s which to this day is still the bane of many North American Chinese restaurateur’s existences.
It all started when a Chinese physician ate at Chinese restaurant and suddenly started to feel a variety of symptoms like: headache, flushed skin and sweating. He coined these feeling as: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (man, he was intensively targeting when he created this syndrome). He blamed his symptoms on a common food additive used in Asian cuisine: monosodium glutamate, known more common as MSG.
We’ve all heard of food sensitivities and allergies, and the symptoms that this physician was describing sounded like he may have been sensitive to MSG, which can happen, much like someone who is sensitive to dairy. Food sensitivities occur in a small subset of our population, but to say MSG impacts every single one of us, is a questionable statement.
From that day on, MSG became known as the most vilified food additive in North America. MSG became the toy nobody wanted to play with, and led restaurants to remove the additive completely from their menu and even advertise with a MSG-Free sign to convince customers to come back.
So why was it used in the first place?
Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid, which basically means we make it in our body and it is one of the building blocks to make proteins. Glutamic acid is found naturally in food so the notion that MSG is a dangerous chemical is simply not true. We can find glutamic acid in tomatoes and cheese. Glutamic acid combined with salt becomes the superhuman monosodium glutamate, also known as flavour town.
MSG is used because it takes us to an area of flavour town you might never have been before, AKA Umami town. Umami is the 5th basic taste. It’s not sweet, sour, salty, bitter or a combo of all… it’s even better and unique. Much of Asian cuisine is thanks to the umami discovery. In Western cuisine we tend to use fat as our flavouring tool, however some genius in Asian cuisine was able to still produce that same flavour minus the fat.
To this day, no research has been able to make a strong enough argument that MSG causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Even the government got involved. A joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives back in the 80s reported that MSG poses no hazard to our health. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (that was a long title to type) undertook a review in 1995 that could also not find a link between MSG and these symptoms.
Anti-MSGers (not a thing) tend to make the direct association between MSG and brain function and claim MSG causes headaches and even brain damage (whoa… hold up, let’s hear from research). A 2016 review gathered all relevant human studies measuring the effect of MSG on headaches and concluded that there were no significant differences in the incidence of headaches between the MSG group and the placebo group. One study did find that with a high dose of MSG without food (given in capsule form), some individuals experienced adverse GI reactions which led to vomiting. However, I think you can agree with me when I say most people aren’t hooked up to an MSG IV/taking MSG capsules or eating that much Chinese food in a day to experience symptoms like that –like it would take a truck load of Chinese food to experience symptoms like that. Remember that those results only came from one study so we cannot say for sure the direct cause was MSG and future studies will be needed to make that conclusion. Some of the studies were not completely blind, meaning the test subjects knew they were ingesting MSG, which can prove difficult when assessing results, since some may be more prone to migraines or may believe they are MSG sensitive which greatly affects the results.
Now it’s time for the TSN Turning Point. We’ve established that some people may be sensitive to MSG (small subset of population) and we’ve established that there is no evidence to suggest the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (sorry Doc). Here’s the twist: there’s some evidence that MSG may carry some benefits.
When everyone was hating on MSG, some researchers were busy looking at MSG as a potential salt substitute.
“MSG contains only 1/3 of the amount of sodium as table salt”
Our society loves to eat salt… we eat too much of it and so much of our processed foods are loaded with salt, mainly for preservation and for taste. One study decided to reduce the sodium content in its soup and replace with MSG in an attempt to not compromise the taste. The results showed that individuals still enjoyed the taste of the soup and that when sodium was reduced and MSG was increased, the soup was still tasty. Canned soup is a hot ticket item in stores because it’s convenient and affordable –the only downside is the high sodium content, which puts us at risk for high blood pressure and several chronic diseases. Salt substitutes are highly popular in the market, but with the bumped up umami flavour profile from MSG, it may be a more desirable option for people who don’t want to miss out on flavour.
When people were still hating on MSG, some researchers looked into MSG as a solution to get the elderly to eat more in hospitalized settings.
As individuals age, some start to lose their sense of taste which leads them to eat less and puts them at risk of malnutrition and unintended weight loss. As Dietitians, our job is to find strategies to increase food intake by intensifying the taste and smell of foods. One method tried adding MSG to the food and the results were interesting. Researchers found that individuals with decreased food intake who were given MSG in their food experienced an increase in appetite due to the palatability of MSG.
Since we’re already talking about extravagant theories, how about I introduce my theory: “The I’m going to eat everything in sight because I’m at a Chinese restaurant”.
Some people may feel totally bloated or uncomfortable after eating Chinese food because of its binge like tendencies. Stick with me. When I get to a Chinese restaurant, I order like a King: “Oh yeah, let’s get an order of that and why not that and worse come to worse we’ll have leftovers”. Honestly I think Chinese restaurants are the only place where people always order more than they should. So maybe you’re sluggish the next day or still stuffed from the night before but don’t blame the restaurant or the MSG because you decided to order like it was your last night on earth. The best tip I can give you is let everyone at the table pick one dish they like. Then give everyone time to digest –it typically takes us about twenty minutes for our stomach to empty so use that time to chit chat. If by then people are still hungry, order a few more plates.
So what have we learned?
We’ve learned that with the current research we have, MSG is safe to ingest and may even carry some benefits. We’ve learned that some individuals may be MSG-sensitive and may need to speak with their doctor. Remember pacing yourself at a Chinese restaurant will leave you feeling less bloated and you’ll end up enjoying the experience. Finally, I think it’s about time we all stop quoting the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome from the 60s… and as coined by our Prime Minister Trudeau: “Because it’s 2017”.
(retrieved from: https://www.liberal.ca/because-its-2015-t-shirt/)
Still applicable for 2017
Thanks for reading FoodVice.
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