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Spoonful of MSG still stirs up fear in Phuket

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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Special Report

Entire websites are devoted to warnings about monosodium glutamate (MSG). Its detractors claim that it causes cancer, headaches, palpitations, excessive neurological excitement, hair loss and more.
Is it really not good for us? What are the facts? The
Phuket Gazette‘s Leslie Porterfield reports.

PHUKET: MSG was first produced in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who wanted to identify the unique flavor of a popular broth made from a seaweed called kombu. Ikeda felt the flavor was neither salty, sweet, sour or bitter.

He discovered that the taste came from the glutamate the seaweed was rich in, and gave the new, “fifth taste”– neither salty, sweet, sour or bitter – the name “umami”.

If you like meaty stews, Parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes or mushrooms, you like umami – which is a rich, savory flavor.

Though the Japanese name is relatively new, the taste itself has long been appreciated. The
ancient Romans prized a fermented fish sauce called “garum” which was rich in glutamates.

The website of an American cooking magazine, Cook’s Country, lists ingredients rich in glutamates that can be added to recipes to boost flavor: soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, tomato paste, mushrooms, olives, miso, parmesan, marmite, kombu and beef stock.

Chefs interested in molecular gastronomy – how chemicals in foods interact to create or boost flavor – know that it’s not only glutamate that gives the flavor of umami, but two other compounds as well: inosinate and guanylate.

Combining two of these turbocharges taste, which explains why recipes around the world combine the
elements: the Japanese add dry fish flakes (inosinate) to their kombu broth (glutamate); a western stew might combine onion and potatoes (glutamate) with beef (inosinate); Chinese chefs add cabbage (glutamate) with chicken (inosinate).

The classic American cheeseburger mixes beef (inosinate) and cheese (glutamate). And don’t forget the slice of tomato or tomato ketchup, both rich in glutamates.

MSG, it turns out, is a shortcut to yummy.

WHAT IT’S MADE OF

Professor Ikeda patented MSG and founded a company to manufacture it – Ajinomoto – which to this day is the world’s leading producer.

In the early days, MSG was made from wheat gluten; nowadays it’s made by a process of fermentation using sugar, such as molasses from sugarcane or beet, and a starch that is locally abundant – in the US, corn; in Thailand, cassava flour.

WORRIES START

If glutamate has been prized for centuries and we like umami flavor, why the concerns about MSG?

Anxiety about the product seems to stem from 1968, when a biochemist wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Science saying that Chinese restaurant food left him lightheaded and with odd aches and pains. The following issue of the journal published more purported ill-effects.

Robert Ho Man Kwok, the letter-writer, had hypothesized that MSG, high sodium or excessive alcohol intake were the culprits, but public attention focused only on MSG.

Chinese restaurant owners at the time disputed the idea. “There are 700 million people on earth who eat Chinese food every day, and nothing has ever happened to them,” said one. “The only headaches I get are from running this place and paying taxes,” said another.

Yet more than 40 years later, the concerns persist.

At a popular morning boiled rice shop in Phuket Town, about 5 per cent of the customers request no MSG, the owner, Ann Sukjaroen, told the Gazette.

“Mostly it’s parents asking me not to put it in their children’s food, or people very concerned about their health,” said Ann, who normally adds a quarter teaspoon of MSG to each bowl of boiled rice with pork stock and goes through about five kilos of the white powder per month.

“Most people want it, but they don’t want to know about it.”

A recent email to the Gazette highlighted misunderstandings about the product. “I would like to find out what the local health authorities in Phuket have to say about the use of MSG,” the writer said. “In many countries this cancer-causing powder has been banned for years, but I have seen bags full of Ajinomoto in some stores here in Phuket.”

Far from being banned, MSG is considered safe by multiple international health and food organizations.

RESEARCH

The subject of over 40 years of testing, MSG is one of the most researched food additives in history.

The results? At levels normally consumed as a flavor enhancer, MSG is safe for the general population.

This is the position held by: the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, the Commission of European Communities, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Thai FDA and many other food safety
organizations.

Experiments with people who reported negative reactions to MSG have not yielded conclusive results, except when MSG was given – without food – in higher amounts than is normally consumed.

A US FDA fact sheet says, “Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.”

Studies commissioned by the FDA in the 1990s found some “short-term, transient, and generally mild symptoms, such as headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations and drowsiness in some sensitive individuals who consume three grams or more of MSG without food.

As a point of reference, daily consumption of MSG is about 0.5 to 1 gram in the US and UK and 1.5 grams in Thailand, Japan and Korea.

Due to the preponderance of studies showing the safety of MSG as a food additive, it received the rating of GRAS – generally recognized as safe – from the US FDA. Sugar has a GRAS rating; so do vinegar and mustard.

The Food Standards Australia New Zealand notes that “a very small number of people who are sensitive to a range of foods, especially those with asthma, may be sensitive to glutamate. These people should ask if it is being used in restaurants and should note that glutamates are naturally present in certain foods.”

Because it is generally recognized as safe, there are no restrictions on how much MSG restaurants can add to food,” said Kajornsak Kaewjarus, Chief of the Phuket Provincial Health Office.

“At one time, the WHO recommended no more than six grams of MSG a day,” added Dr Kajornsak, “but they have since removed that limit.”

Because MSG is considered safe, it has no ADI, acceptable daily intake, restrictions.

“However, there are restrictions against using fake MSG. It carries a fine of up to 100,000 baht and up to 10 years in prison.”

PREVALENCE

In addition to the 0.5 to 1 gram of MSG we consume daily as a food additive, we get about 20 to 40 grams of naturally occurring glutamate per day through our food.

Glutamate is the salt of glutamic acid, which is an amino acid. Since amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, it shouldn’t be too surprising to discover that even our bodies produce glutamate; about 50 grams a day. Human breast milk has 10 times the glutamate of cow’s milk.

Humans’ appetite for glutamates is not new; and as a modern-day version of the Roman’s garum, MSG has the advantage, apart from a slight saltiness, of being more or less tasteless, allowing it to be used in a wide range of foods.

It’s used not only in restaurants, but in a wide range of processed foods as well – take a look at a bottle of salad dressing or pack of chips, for starters.

Like it or fear it, it doesn’t look like MSG will be going anywhere soon.

Additional reporting by Pannaphak Tak

— Leslie Porterfield

 

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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