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MSG is Perfectly Safe, the American Chemical Society Reminds Us

Feb 02, 2015 08:24 PM EST
sesame chicken
(Photo : Pixabay)

It's no secret that scientists and the general public don't always see eye-to-eye about things. Animal testing, GMOs, and climate change are all hot-button topics for debate. But at least in the case of MSG, maybe it's time to listen to the experts. The American Chemical Society (ACS) recently released a video attempting to put the egregiously wrong rumors about this common ingredient down for good.

"The toxic, poisonous, cancerous, energy sucking, headache inducing reputation of MSG is one of the biggest lingering food myth of all," the ACS recently reported in a video as part of their popular Reactions YouTube series.

The video, which you can watch below, describes how MSG was first vilified in the late 1960s after a Chinese-American doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine of the unpleasant symptoms he often felt after eating mass-market Chinese food in the United States.

These symptoms included a headache, neck pain, heart palpitations, and general numbness, and were quickly coined as "Chinese restaurant syndrome."

Amazingly, despite an obvious lack of evidence, the syndrome became a popular subject of conversation among the general public and was associated with MSG - the most unknown of ingredients popular in Chinese restaurant meals.

But just what is MSG anyways and how could it lead to those symptoms?

According to the SmithsonianMSG was first derived from seaweed in 1908, when Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda decided to figure out how dashi -  an ubiquitous Japanese soup base - somehow gave even meatless dishes a savory flavor.

After a series of chemical experiments and taste tests using seaweed extract, the chemist determined that there were not four basic flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, and sour), but five. This fifth flavor, which enhances the experience of other flavors by complementing them, he called umami, from the Japanese umai (delicious.)

Now here's where things get interesting. Ikeda determined that the molecular formula behind this umani flavor, at least in seaweed, was the same as glutamic acid, an amino acid naturally produced by the human body as glutamate. It is also found in protein foods, "meaty" vegetables like tomatoes, and even parmesan cheese.

In an effort to monopolize this flavor, the chemist worked to bind natural glutamic acid to sodium crystals, making it just as easy to add to food as basic salt. The result was good ol' monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

The first MSG additive was sold as Ajinomoto, which means 'essence of taste,' in 1909. It quickly became a staple in restaurant dishes, at least until one disgruntled buffet-goer decided to vent in a scientific journal several decades later.

Still, can we blame MSG for cases of Chinese restaurant syndrome?

According to the National Library of Medicine, you probably can, but only as far as you can blame a triple-decker cheeseburger for obesity.

Bound to salt, the ingredient can lead to a person consuming too much sodium, which can result in sweating, swelling of the face, and even numbness. Too much salt and just plain overeating can also lead to severe headaches.

Heart palpitations, on the other hand, have never been conclusively linked with 'too much' glutamate, and it is far more likely that Mr. Kwok was suffering from an allergic reaction to another common ingredient.

The US Food and Drug Administration has also long accepted MSG as safe.

"Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions," the agency reported.

Of course, the modern Chinese food industry has learned to roll with the punches. Many chains won't put the harmless ingredient in their food, allowing their more misled customers some piece-of-mind. Instead, you can find the ingredient in their soy sauce and other condiments, allowing you to get you fill of that "umai" umami without even knowing it.

[Credit: American Chemical Society / Reactions ]

Want to learn more? Check out this awesome info-graphic via the ACS and Compound Interest chemistry.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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