Chinese restaurant syndrome: has MSG been unfairly demonised?

The additive monosodium glutamate has been blamed for everything from headaches to chest pain. Now, some chefs, including Heston Blumenthal, are saying thats nonsense

I am in a eatery in Glasgow where chopsticks stand ready in an eye-catching blue and yellow tin labelled Ve-Tsin Gourmet Powder. Rendered by the Shanghai Guanshengyuan Tianchu Seasoning Company, the powder in question is monosodium glutamate( MSG ). Apparently:” A sprinkling of Ve-Tsin will bring out the full natural flavour of your favourite dishes and render them amazingly delicious .”

We are assured that it is” perfectly wholesome and nutritious “. But this being an “Asian-style” eatery, there is no one Asian in the kitchen, or front of home, and MSG being one of the most controversial food additives, the tin has been emptied of its contents. It is only here for decorative intents, so I won’t be able to sprinkle the white crystals in my soup if it needs pepping up.

In the west, this manufactured additive has been is the responsibility of a number of adverse reactions- headaches, sweating, flushing, numbness of the face and neck, palpitations, nausea, chest pain and sleeplessness- known collectively as” Chinese eatery disorder “. Restaurants that use MSG don’t brag about it.

But is it time to revisit that stigma? MSG- or E621, to give the additive its official European E-number- is being rehabilitated by prominent “modernist” or “molecular” cooks, who borrow ingredients and techniques from the food engineering and chemical industries. In the UK, Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant has three Michelin starrings, is militantly pro-MSG.” The biggest old wives’ tale is that MSG is bad for you ,” he tells.” That is complete and utter nonsense. There is not one[ scientific] newspaper to prove that .”

Heston Blumenthal: militantly pro-MSG. Photo: Steve Parsons/ PA

If you catch a whiff of misogyny in the term” old spouses”, such chefs are more focused on another kind of bias: anti-science. In the US, chef-restaurateur David Chang, founder of the Momofuku food group, is another voluble ambassador for the” exhilaration of cooking with science “. ” Today ,” he has written,” everything is supposed to be’ natural ‘, simple, old-fashioned. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that science is scary. Just think about MSG, which has been banned in certain[ US] cities and provokes an irrational dread in many consumers. But it’s just a sodium ion attached to glutamate, which is something your body produces naturally and needs to function. True, MSG doesn’t exist in nature; it’s a scientific invention. But multiple surveys have failed to show that it makes anyone sick. It merely constructs food taste delicious .”

Is Chang right? E621/ MSG is the manmade version of an amino acid- glutamic acid – that is find naturally in foods such as seaweed, aged parmesan, anchovies, miso, cured meat and ripe tomatoes, and is now held to be responsible for their deeply savoury tastiness. This quality is sometimes referred to as umami, the'” fifth savor” after salty, sweet, sour and bitter, a term coined by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda. In 1908, he patented a process for extracting glutamate from seaweed and stabilising it with salt to make monosodium glutamate, a product thereafter known as Aji-No-Moto-” essence of savor “.

According to Chinese food expert Deh-ta Hsiung, the Chinese started constructing it from wheat in 1923, calling it Ve-Tsin, which entails more or less the same thing. Nowadays, most MSG is synthesised from bacteria.

Kikunae Ikeda, who patented a process for stimulating MSG in 1908. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Food technologists, who know MSG as a” salivation enhancer” and” flavour potentiator”, are fully aware of its prodigious they are able to modulate our perception of otherwise humdrum ingredients. Modernist chefs argue that MSG is just a handy sort of the glutamate in tasty, natural foods, and no more sinister. Although Chang doesn’t use MSG in his kitchens, he has defended its employ, telling a high-level meeting of top chefs that Chinese restaurant disorder is nothing more than a” culture construct “. That is a polite route of saying that avoidance of MSG is an expression of western ignorance, or worse, racism, depicting on stereotypes of Asian countries as dangerous or dirty.

So is the ” syndrome” all in the prejudiced occidental mind? It is certainly real to several British people I talked to. One adventurous eater and traveller who believes she has experienced it describes it as” a strange warm feeling in the chest, similar to having too much caffeine, waking up with a pounding heart, and weird dreamings “. It is also a reality for Ken Hom, the renowned cook and authority on Chinese cook. He never use MSG.” I have been allergic to it from childhood and my mum never employed it in her cooking .” He depicts a distinction between naturally occurring glutamate in food and the synthetic powder.” As with any good food that is properly cooked and well seasoned ,” he says,” Chinese food doesn’t need MSG. We can never be sure of the long-term health implications of any artificial, manmade chemicals in our food. For me, it is a dangerous road that we don’t need to go down .”

The Aji-No-Moto company, meanwhile, insists that its MSG powder has been safely used as a food ingredient for more than a century.” It is one of the most exhaustively tested of all food ingredients, with hundreds of scientific studies corroborating its safe and effective use. MSG’s safety has been repeatedly affirmed by regulators and scientific agencies around the world ,” it says. But there is more to the MSG health story than that.

Although MSG is approved for use as a food additive in the European Union, processors are limited to no more than 10 g per kilo of food. Higher levels are allowed in salt replaces, seasonings and flavorings, where companies are free to add what they like while observing” good manufacturing practice”, whatever that might be. As far as consumers are concerned, last year the European Food Safety Authority( EFSA) reassessed the safety of glutamate additives and came up with an ” acceptable daily uptake “~ ATAGEND of 30mg per kilogram of body weight for MSG and related glutamates,” below the doses that have been associated with certain effects in humen, such as headache, created blood pressure and increased insulin levels “.( That is the equivalent of about 2g for someone weighing 70 kg/ 11 stone .)

Monosodium glutamate, known as MSG or E621, takes the form of white crystals. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

MSG also typically contains undesirable impurities as a result of the manufacturing process- arsenic and lead. EFSA has recommended that the current restrictions for these be revised, too,” to ensure that they will not be a significant source of exposure to those toxic parts “.

Manufacturers use MSG and other glutamate additives to simulate natural savoury flavours in ultra-processed products such as soup mixtures, readymade sauces, savoury snacks, seasoned nuts, stock cubes and instant noodles. Ironically, they are currently reformulating products to use more glutamates than before because this allows them to cut down on salt and keep the anti-sodium brigade happy. So, in the name of supposedly healthier processed food, down goes the level of salt( a processed but nonetheless natural ingredient) and up runs the level of MSG( a synthetic additive ).

But at least any company that includes MSG in a product must respect the maximum legal limit. An expert Chinese Singaporean cook was also at aches to explain to me that in Chinese home cooking MSG powder is used only very sparingly- literally a pinch in the entire dish.” Overuse of MSG masks the flavour. Importantly, it is used to mask substandard produce .” But when it comes to restaurants, who governs the amount that is being used? If the chef sets a teaspoon, rather than a pinch, into the otherwise underpowered ramen broth, are we any the wiser? Perhaps people who feel rough after a Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese or Vietnamese meal have simply been fed too much of the stuff?

While we fixate on Chinese restaurant disorder, another possible negative impact of MSG on health- weight gain- barely registers on our radar. Animal surveys have flagged up that monosodium glutamate could induce brain lesions and resistance to leptin( the hormone that controls appetite ), eventually leading to weight issues.

A study published in 2008 of 752 healthy people haphazardly sampled from three rural villages in north and south China- the great majority of whom prepared their meals at home, without using commercially processed food- found that those who utilized MSG were significantly heavier. The researchers concluded:” MSG intake may be associated with increased risk of[ becoming] overweight independent of physical activity and total energy intake in humans .”

Another group of scientists using data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey found that” MSG consumption was positively … links with overweight developing among apparently healthy Chinese adults “. They said that farther analyses were needed, but again hypothesised that MSG disrupts leptin, the hormone that should tell us when we’re full. Might it be that MSG induces food taste so damn delicious, so moreish, that we can’t stop eating it?

Cook and novelist Fuchsia Dunlop, who specialises in Chinese food, doesn’t use MSG- she doesn’t have to because she builds ups that tantalising savoury flavour utilizing good ingredients. But she is pleased to see influential cooks taking a stand against its demonisation, which she believes taps into western paranoia about China. Yet she sees a shift in Chinese stances to MSG.” People in China eat MSG all the time and bad chefs there use lots of it ,” she says.” But these days, more middle-class Chinese people are very concerned about health, looking for more natural foods, and are trying to cut down on it. For me, MSG is a bit like salt and sugar. If it’s isolated from nature, and you use too much of it, then that’s not a good thing .”

Chemically speaking , no analytical method can differentiate between added and naturally occurring glutamate. But whether they have identical effects on our health is a much bigger question, similar to the debate around whether vitamins in supplement form are as beneficial as vitamins in food. Ultimately, our analysis of MSG may be more philosophical than chemical. Would we instead have savouriness skilfully and patiently built up from well-chosen ingredients using time-honoured techniques, or will we settle for a cheat’s quick fix from a tin?

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