- Dr. David Alfaro
It is funny how the world is scared of acronyms. ISIS, AIDS, DDT, MSG. Somehow, the less we know about something, the worse it is for us. Take MSG for example. I LOVE MSG. It tastes so good. I love it in my potato chips, and I LOOOOVVVE Chinese food with MSG in it. But, how? MSG is so bad for you! People are allergic to MSG! MSG is a drug!
Is it? Are they?
Let us talk about MSG.
What in the world is MSG and why does it have such a bad reputation?
Way back in 1968, a letter to the editor was published in a famous medical journal, where the author described experiencing "Chinese-restaurant syndrome". Researchers posited that MSG was behind this "syndrome" that people felt after eating Chinese food, which included a myriad of symptoms such as flushing, dry mouth, headache, and even asthma and death.
These articles, however, were not based on strong clinical evidence and were highly anecdotal.....yet, the term and belief gathered steam, and many people today still believe that MSG is bad for you.
What is MSG?
It is pretty simple; it is sodium and glutamate. Sodium is in virtually every cell of the body and plays an imperative role in voltage regulation across cell membranes. Glutamate is an amino acid, which is not only a building block for proteins, but can act as a fuel source, and is also an important neurotransmitter. These are two vital substances that the body utilizes for very key functions. The ubiquitous and essential nature of these chemicals makes me wonder just how someone could be "allergic to them". It is highly illogical.
Yes, just like anything you ingest, if you have too much MSG, it can throw you off. Technically you can die from drinking too much water, and oxygen can be converted to very toxic free radicals. It does not mean that water is deadly and that oxygen is bad for you. Life is all about balance.
Why does MSG taste sooooooo gooooooddd?
Of the many taste receptors, there are ones specific for sodium and glutamate, and both are interpereted as very pleasant sensations, unlike sour or bitter (although I do love a good sour treat). Sodium is usually associated with a "salty" taste. "umami" is that delicious and mysterious fifth taste that is stimulated by glutamate. MSG therefore directly stimulates the taste buds, without needing to be broken down first. Instant yummy stimulation.
The scence behind the gustatory sense is ever expanding, and goes way beyond those antiquated flavour maps of yore. Perhaps we can explore more in the future.
Is MSG bad for you?
Time and time again, researchers have tackled this "Chinese-restaurant syndrome", finding no corellation at all between monosodium glutamate ingestion and those horrible symptoms. MSG has not been shown to cause headaches, asthma or death, and has not been proven to be allergenic.
There is evidence that MSG can be a very useful food additive because it can improve the flavour of food at much lower concentrations than other salts such as sodium chloride, thus allowing for reductions in dietary salt intake. Making things yummy without increasing salt content is great for people who are eating bland meals and are medically compromised, such as in nursing homes.
Read these articles to see what I mean:
MSG Safety: http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v61/n3/full/1602526a.html
MSG and Allergy: http://z4.ifrm.com/12418/66/0/p1046803/MSG.pdf
MSG Clinical Trial: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/027869159390012N
MSG and Asthma: http://www.update-software.com/BCP/WileyPDF/EN/CD004357.pdf
Then why is MSG so controversial?
I really do not know. There are so many articles dismissing this "syndrome", yet people will look through a list of ingredients and bypass food colouring, carcinogenic compounds, chemical preservatives and go.....ohhhhh this has MSG....too bad. It is just plain silly to me.
Thanks for reading!