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        16 May 2017, 12:52 pm

        What's the Deal with MSG (Issue 69) by Tiamari

        Is there a silent killer lurking in your food cabinet or is all the hype just a fad?

        What is MSG?

        Monosodium glutamate (MSG, also known as sodium glutamate) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids. Monosodium glutamate is found naturally in tomatoes, cheese and other foods, and is used in the food industry as a flavour enhancer.

        Artificial MSG

        A historical dish in the Asian community is a glutamate-rich seaweed broth. It is a sought-after taste which is called “umami” and is associated with a “meaty” flavour.

        In 1908, a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda was able to extract glutamate from this broth and determined that glutamate provided the savoury taste to the soup. Professor Ikeda then filed a patent to produce MSG.

        Today, instead of extracting and crystallizing MSG from seaweed broth, MSG is produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. This fermentation process is similar to that used to make yogurt, vinegar and wine.

        The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way.

        Chemically speaking, MSG is approximately 78 percent free glutamic acid, 21 percent sodium, and up to 1 percent contaminants.

        MSG has very little taste at all on its own, but combined with food it changes the perception of taste.

        Public Interest

        MSG attracted attention during 1968, when Robert Ho Man Kwok reported symptoms after an American-Chinese meal. Kwok suggested possible reasons for his symptoms, including alcohol (from cooking with wine), sodium, and MSG. The ensuing public interest spurred a number of scientific inquiries into the potential danger of MSG.

        Is MSG safe?

        The FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be “generally recognized as safe”.

        However, there is wide-spread controversy about the issue. Some believe that the effects of artificial MSG might be cumulative due to over stimulation of the nervous system. It also stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin regardless of the presence of carbohydrates for the insulin to act on. Experiments on mice indicated a possibility that processed free glutamic acids like MSG could cause brain damage or radical hormone fluctuations.

        Sensitivity Symptoms

        MSG reportedly causes a cluster of symptoms in sensitive individuals. Some people report experiencing headache, numbness, chest pain and sweating after eating foods containing MSG. If you suspect that you are sensitive to MSG, it is advisable to reduce your exposure.

        Food Sources that Contain MSG

        MSG is added to food to enhance its flavour and is therefore found in a variety of processed, packaged and restaurant foods.

        Some foods contain free glutamate -- formed from the breakdown of protein -- which can combine with free sodium and create MSG.

        In addition, MSG occurs naturally in certain foods such as potatoes, peas, tomatoes and tomato juice, dried mushrooms, grapes, grape juice and other fruit juices, cheeses such as Parmesan and Rocquefort, soy sauce and human breast milk.

        Checking Labels

        Ingredients containing MSG may be listed as hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, glutamic acid and yeast extract.


        MSG would be almost impossible to avoid completely. If you suspect that you are sensitive to it, it is of course best to limit your consumption as far as possible. Being aware of the possible dangers is a step in the right direction.

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