The Truth About MSG and Your Health

The Truth About MSG and Your Health

October 25, 2019 100 By William Morgan


[ INTRO]
Foodies can’t stop talking about umami —
the savory taste that’s taking over the
culinary scene and
which, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and
salty, is one of the five basic tastes that
our tongues perceive.
But if you’re a fan of Chinese takeout,
you’ve been team umami from the get-go.
That’s because MSG—
that flavoring often associated with American
Chinese food—
is umami in its purest form.
And while you might have been told it’s
bad for you or causes
the so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,”
science disagrees.
As much as we associate MSG with Chinese food,
there isn’t anything inherently Chinese,
or even Asian, about the compound.
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate—the
sodium salt of glutamate—
an amino acid that the human body can synthesize,
but that we also get from our food.
Like other amino acids, glutamate is an important
building block for proteins,
and it also helps nerve cells send signals
to other cells in the body—
it’s the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter
in vertebrates.
Since it’s so important for our bodies,
it’s not surprising we’ve evolved a taste
for it.
We have umami-specific receptors on our tongues
and in our stomachs,
and these drive our love for foods that contain
glutamate like tomatoes, mushrooms, and aged
cheeses.
And umami-rich foods have been staples in
human diets for, well, /forever/.
For example, historians call the concoction
known as Garum—
an umami-filled sauce made from fermented
fish guts—the ketchup of ancient Rome.
And we’ve been concentrating available,
naturally-occurring glutamate
by sun-drying tomatoes and curing meats for
centuries, long before we knew what amino
acids were.
Even babies seem to like MSG, which makes
sense, because human milk is naturally rich
in glutamate.
But purified MSG wasn’t a thing until 1908,
when a Japanese chemist realized that the
base made from kombu seaweed in his soup
imparted a delicious flavor that wasn’t
one of the four previously-established tastes.
He soon isolated the crystalline salt of glutamate
from the kelp, striking culinary gold.
He called the crystals Ajinomoto, which means
essence of taste.
And it wasn’t long before MSG became commercialized.
In Asia, it was branded a staple for any modern
cook,
and quickly became ubiquitous in kitchens
across Japan and China.
By the early 1930s it had gone global, with
companies like Heinz and Campbell’s
adding MSG to their products.
And even the US military hopped on the MSG
train.
During World War II, the army used the best
available food science to develop nutritionally
dense rations with long shelf lives,
called K-rations,
but soldiers hated them because they were
super bland.
So, in the late 1940s, they started adding
MSG to them,
and suddenly, they weren’t so reviled.
Our universal love for MSG isn’t just from
its savory goodness.
Studies have shown that umami functions as
a flavor enhancer,
creating a harmony between various flavors
and aromas and adding a sort of dimension
to both—
a phenomenon known as umami synergy.
That sounds kind of nebulous,
but consider a 2007 study published in the
European Journal of Neuroscience.
Researchers as Oxford University had twelve
volunteers sip an umami drink
made of water, MSG, and the nucleotide ii
while sniffing a vegetable aroma.
On their own, both the umami drink and the
vegetable aroma were considered unpleasant
and bland.
But when combined, they were rated higher,
and they just seemed to go together better
than a salty drink paired with the same smell.
What was really telling, though,
was that brain activity maps showed way more
neurons associated with flavor and pleasure
lit up from the combo
than would have been estimated by adding up
the isolated effects of each.
Given all this, you might be wondering why
companies now proudly proclaim their food
doesn’t contain MSG,
or people say it makes them sick.
Well, while our love of MSG comes from biology,
a lot of people’s aversion to it seems to
have roots in something else entirely—racism.
It all started with a 1968 letter to the editor
of the New England Journal of Medicine
describing the author’s and his friends’
so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
following the consumption of Chinese food,
including symptoms like heart palpitations,
generalized weakness, and radiating numbness.
The idea took hold, spurring years of biased
science based on the flawed assumption
that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was a real
thing, and that MSG caused it.
Subsequent animal studies seemingly confirmed
the idea, but these often consisted of injecting
super concentrated doses of MSG directly into
creatures’ abdomens, which is not exactly
a scientific approach to determining the effects
of MSG sprinkled into saucepans.
More recent research on MSG aversion has taken
into account the xenophobia and racism that
fueled it.
And over the last 3 decades, a number of double-blinded,
placebo-controlled studies, including studies
of subjects with reported sensitivity to MSG,
have failed to find a reproducible response
to ingesting foods with MSG.
A much more likely explanation for feeling
crummy after Chinese takeout is the nocebo
effect, where you feel sick simply because
of the belief that something will make you
ill.
Fortunately, scientists are one step ahead
of the haters.
Investigation into potential health benefits
of MSG is ongoing, with research suggesting
it can help increase salivation and appetite
in the elderly, increase satiety and therefore
reduce caloric intake in those trying to lose
weight, and help impart flavor while reducing
overall dietary sodium.
So yeah, MSG doesn’t deserve its toxic reputation.
But you don’t need to avoid your favorite
restaurant just because they use a little.
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[ OUTRO ]