The Chinatown boy with the bad rep
I have met many people who won’t eat Chinese food because they believe they will get headaches, shakes and a host of maladies due to their alleged allergy to monosodium glutamate. Many of these same people will go out and dip their sushi in soy sauce, or grate Parmesan cheese over their pasta, not realizing that those foods also contain large amounts of glutamic acid, the primary compound in MSG.
Glutamic acid is one of 20 basic amino acids that are the building blocks for all the proteins in our bodies, and is found in many commonly eaten foods. Its presence in the body is critical to maintaining a healthy metabolism and acting as a neurotransmitter agent. In fact, many of us have been exposed to it since we were young — human breast milk contains more than 10 times the glutamic acid of the same amount of cow’s milk, which may partially explain why we are so drawn to it in our diets.
When you hear chefs at the restaurant or on TV go on about umami or glutamates in a dish, they are actually saying it contains lots of glutamic acid, which creates the thick, meaty-savoury, flavour enhancing sensation people crave. Monosodium glutamate is just glutamic acid with bonded salt, which helps it dissolve in liquid and create those tasty ions that are responsible for creating umami.
While one can use artificially created MSG to augment the flavours of their dishes, it is actually easier to draw out the naturally occurring glutamates present in many day-to-day foods — eggs, beef, potatoes and tomatoes — through cooking, curing or fermenting.
Many cultures around the world, most notably in Japan where the term umami first developed in the early 1900s, have refined techniques to create glutamate-rich foods. A mix of konbu and various kelps are used to create dashi, the basic broth that comprises the foundation for many Japanese dishes. Regions in Italy and Spain create prosciutto, culatello and Iberico ham by carefully controlling the temperature and humidity during the curing process, which breaks down proteins to form glutamic acid within the meat.
We regularly consume many of these foodstuffs as part of our basic diets, so it seems odd that there are so many claimed MSG allergies when medical studies identify only one per cent of the population as actively exhibiting food additive intolerances. It has been argued that the symptoms are psychosomatic or used as a generic excuse to avoid food which a person may not be accustomed to, as opposed to those who manifest serious physical discomfort.
Food naturalists may claim that adding artificial MSG is unhealthy, and that naturally extracting glutamates is better for you. In reality, the human body processes both artificial and natural glutamates in the same manner. However, it is true that naturally prepared glutamates like konbu dashi may taste better, due to the fact that it has been fortified with sake, mirin, soy and other ingredients to create more robust flavour profiles. Additionally, some brands of artificial MSG are actually made from natural ingredients and enhanced with minerals.
Even though many go out of their way to eschew foods which are unrightfully branded as MSG laden, many don’t realize they consume it from other sources without ill effect. Grilled sardines, which are a popular Mediterranean dish, are rich in glutamic acid, and a cup of green tea from the coffee shop contains glutamate ions, while a bag of Doritos contains MSG sprinkled over each chip.
Common misconceptions can drastically skew perceptions of healthy and tasty meals and can limit variety. Taking a little time to understand the food that we prepare can help us make informed choices to aid our health and also prepare tastier meals, be it using artificial or natural ingredients.