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  • Writer's pictureM Smith

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Okay, controversial post.

What is MSG, and is it harmful? I grew up eating MSG. I also cook with it. When I’m sharing food with my friends or share recipes, I don’t add MSG because I don’t know how people feel about it or assume how they feel about it.

What is MSG? It‘s a food enhancer used in cooking (not just Asian cooking); first developed and extracted from seaweed in 1908 by a Japanese biochemist. MSG occurs naturally in food like seaweed, mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes and cheese. Why add MSG to food? MSG adds UMAMI flavour, the 5th basic taste that we all crave after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Umami is savoury. If you love packaged ramen, there’s probably MSG in it; if you love fast food, yup, MSG. If you love fermented food, yup MSG. If you love Doritos, MSG is in Doritos → Remember this little tidbit

What does MSG taste like? Sweet, savoury, not too salty. By itself, it’s not “delicious”, but combined with food, it enhances flavours. I mean, what “spice” taste good on its own. No one ever ate a spoonful of pepper and said this is amazing. A few years back, someone came up with the cinnamon spice challenge, and we all know how that ended up.

Many people have claimed that MSG can cause adverse reactions with symptoms ranging from:

  • Headache

  • Flushing

  • Sweating

  • Facial pressure or tightness

  • Numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas.

  • Rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations)

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea

  • Weakness

Studies have found that, yes, some people did have a bad reaction to MSG when consumed in large amounts without food. However, people had the same reaction when eating large amounts of salt without food. And when I say, without food, I don’t mean on an empty stomach. I’m referring to eating a handful of MSG or salt with nothing else, not mixed with food - just on its own.

Like drinking a whole bottle of vodka without any mixer. All studies have shown that MSG is safe for consumption.

The fear of MSG is rooted in misinformation and a bit of racism, to be honest. I mean, the fear of MSG has been penned the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. You can learn more about the science and the history of MSG here.

A letter from a supposed “Chinese American” doctor in 1968 started the whole “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”.

Here's the thing, it might not have even been a “Chinese“ American Doctor. Just an American doctor writing with a fake name. Lots of back and forth about this. Article found below. I'm not going to hyperlink the article as I normally would, because I think it's important to read.

The more you dig into the history of MSG, the more you realize the fear associated with it is deeply connected to over a century of racism against Chinese/Asian immigrants. In the USA, they had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; in Canada we had Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 - both were massive human rights violations (yes, I know we didn't have human rights violations back then, that doesn't justify it). Both of these acts were spurred on by fear of the unknown; fear of immigrants; and just plain hostility that is dotted through-out Canadian history and still evident today. COVID-19 didn't just lock us all down, it also created a breeding ground for extreme violence and xenophobia against Asian Canadians and Americans, and Asians in general.

Let’s circle round back to the Doritos. When I lived on campus my first year of post-secondary school, I met a friend from one of my classes; we bonded over Doritos.

She loved Doritos.

All the flavours. She would eat a mini bag or a full bag every day. She ate a lot of Doritos.

When I made stir-frys or basic “Asian” food, she would complain that Asian food with MSG would give her headaches and even the smell of me cooking with it made her feel nauseous. The constant complaints made me feel very self-conscious about the food I cooked or ate in front of her. I always added MSG to my cooking. My mom always added MSG when she cooked at home. So, I stopped using it.

It wasn’t until a few months later, after all the shaming, that I noticed Doritos contained Monosodium glutamate. When I brought this up to my friend, she told me that Canadian MSG is different from “Asian MSG”, and that’s why she could have it. Then she explained how she was allergic to Asian MSG and suffered from Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Maybe she was allergic to MSG. I’m not saying allergies don’t exist. I have stupid food sensitivities/allergies: Pineapple, eggplant and mustard. There are lots of allergies out there or food sensitivities… But “Asian MSG”?

We didn’t remain friends. It wasn’t because of the Doritos, but she had to make it about my culture to explain her ignorance. It was a racial micro-aggression.

As friends, we can agree to disagree on many things. Racism isn’t one of them.

This post isn’t about me convincing you that MSG is good or bad. You can have your own opinions. I believe in science and experience. Science tells me it’s not bad, and my experience has proven to me MSG isn’t bad. You can make your own decisions. All I ask is that you try it for yourself.

Important tidbit in Canada:

How is MSG labelled?

When MSG is added to prepackaged foods, it must be declared on the list of ingredients of food labels, even when it is a component of flavouring preparations, spice mixtures, food flavour-enhancer preparations and other preparations or mixtures. This permits individuals who are sensitive to MSG to avoid this substance.

Claims pertaining to the absence or non-addition of monosodium glutamate such as "contains no MSG", "no MSG added," and "no added MSG" are considered misleading and deceptive when other added sources of free glutamate are present (e.g., hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP), soya sauce or autolysed yeast extracts). There are also a number of common food ingredients that contain high levels of naturally-occurring free glutamate, including tomatoes and tomato juice, grapes and grape juice, other fruit juices, cheeses such as Parmesan and Roquefort, and mushrooms. There are no labelling requirements for naturally-occurring free glutamates.

More info here.

dated, sometimes offensive: a group of symptoms held to affect susceptible persons eating food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate : MSG SYMPTOM COMPLEX

NOTE: The term Chinese restaurant syndrome was coined in the late 1960s following reports of people having bad reactions to food seasoned with monosodium glutamate in Chinese restaurants. Research in the years since has failed to establish a clear link between those adverse reactions and the consumption of MSG. The term Chinese restaurant syndrome has been criticized as misleading and potentially offensive. It has been replaced in medical literature by MSG symptom complex.”

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