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?