kitchen myths & fads: msg and a tofu kombu white miso soup recipe
MSG is one of those things that people hear about, know it is in Chinese food and that it either makes them feel sick after consuming or it does not. Very few people have any idea what MSG is or from where it comes. I was one of those people. I was recently discussing, with a coworker, how I could not eat certain foods with MSG because they give me a headache. She balked. She said there was nothing wrong with MSG being added to food. I mistakenly guessed that she knew details regarding MSG.
“What is MSG?” I asked
“Monosodium glutamate, “says my coworker.
“What is monosodium glutamate?”
My coworker then says, “I don’t know. They put it in food.”
Uh, huh. I realized I must research this mysterious food additive since I know I ‘m not the only one who gets headaches because of it and it is odd that only certain foods with the additive bother me. Further investigation seemed like the right thing to do. In a very tiny nutshell, as there is a plethora of information out there, here is what I found:
MSG or monosodium glutamate is a salt of the amino acid called glutamic acid (glutamate). MSG is commonly added to Chinese food, canned soups, vegetable and processed meats. Over a thousand years ago Asian cooks began adding a type of seaweed (Laminaria japonica) found in the Pacific Ocean to their soup stocks. They had discovered that foods cooked in this seaweed broth tasted good. Most ocean creatures have to balance the salty seawater and do so by filling their cells with amino acids and amines. One of these amino acids is glutamic acid in the form of monosodium glutamate, which is savory. Some fish, particularly shellfish, are high in pleasant tasting amino acids.
In 1908, the link between glutamate and the seaweed was discovered. A professor at Tokyo Imperial University, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, isolated glutamate from the seaweed (Kombu). Dr. Ikeda studied which form of glutamate produced the taste preferred for seasoning. He also studied how to produce it for commercial use. What he discovered was monosodium glutamate.
Glutamate is also found in abundance in virtually all natural foods – from meat, poultry, fish, cheese and milk to tomatoes, mushrooms and many other vegetables. Glutamate is the most commonly found amino acid in nature. But, glutamate can also be manufactured.
MSG was first produced in Japan in 1909. Since then, food manufacturers and home cooks have used MSG to augment the flavor of a wide variety of foods. Pure MSG does not have a pleasant taste by itself if it is not combined with a consonant savory smell. As a flavor and in the right amount, MSG has the ability to enhance other taste-active compounds balancing the overall taste of certain dishes.
Monosodium glutamate is produced through a fermentation process that begins with molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets and food starch from certain cereals. They are fermented in a controlled environment. The sodium is added later through a neutralization process.
Manufactured MSG has been used for over 100 years. Yet, it has had its fair share of controversy. Many studies have been conducted to determine if MSG is safe. The FDA states that MSG is “generally recognized as safe.” But, there is a gray area regarding the use of MSG. Many people, like me, find they have adverse reactions to MSG. The MSG Symptom Complex, originally known as the Chinese restaurant syndrome, has been debated.
The FDA admits that MSG has been proven to induce asthma attacks in certain individuals. And, the FDA has received many reports regarding reactions to MSG such as headaches, nausea, chest pain and heart palpitations. Yet, the FDA claims that MSG is generally safe.
According to a 1995 U.S. Food and Drug Administration study, some foods naturally contain higher levels of glutamate than those typically added to foods during manufacturing. For example, the natural glutamate level in aged Parmesan cheese was found to be up to 10 times that found in chicken broth with added monosodium glutamate. If MSG occurs naturally in food then can it be said that manufactured MSG is the problem?
According to MSGTruth.org , which was created by former food process engineer and food scientist, Carol Hoernlein:
“There are contaminants in processed MSG. An analogy that can be used is that there are right-handed amino acids and left handed ones. They are like mirror images of each other. Processed MSG contains not only the kind of amino acids the body is used to handling, but mirror image ones too. This may cause problems because it is like putting the wrong glove on your hand. It’s not quite the same. We don’t exactly know what problems this may cause.
On the other hand (so to speak) the fact that glutamate the body is used to handling is also in MSG may present a problem because an excess of naturally occurring glutamate is well known by neuroscientists to be a problem in many disease states. Natural glutamate can cause problems we already know about. The reason food processors “free” glutamate from its bound form is that it acts as a neurotransmitter in its free form. The food industry’s claim that free glutamate is as harmless as bound glutamate is disingenuous at best. If it was exactly the same, they wouldn’t need to hydrolyze vegetable protein (split the amino acids apart).”
Since MSG occurs naturally in many foods the placing of “No MSG,” “No MSG Added,” or “No Added MSG” on food labels has been deemed by the FDA to be false and misleading under section (403) (a) (1) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act when the label also lists any hydrolyzed protein as an ingredient since it also contains MSG.” To advertise “No MSG,” “No MSG Added,” or “No Added MSG” when there is processed free glutamic acid (MSG) in a product is illegal.
I am inclined to ask the following 3 part question: Do people, who complain of adverse reactions, do so when they have (a) consumed products containing processed MSG only (b) naturally occurring MSG only or (c) both processed and naturally occurring MSG? If glutamic acid (MSG) is naturally occurring and it does not cause adverse reactions then can it be said that manufactured glutamic acid (MSG) is the culprit? Or, if a person is consuming both types of MSG can it be overload?
I’m inclined to believe that manufactured MSG is behind many of the adverse reactions. We are living in a time of over processed foods, formed in a way that maybe our bodies aren’t meant to absorb. But, for the sake of fairness, I do want to keep in mind the following: If we look at the thousand years that Asians added the seaweed to their soup we could say, well, heck, they were fine. But, do we really have proof that they were fine? Did someone say, “Hey that soup gave me a headache?” Maybe. We won’t know.
White Miso Soup with Tofu (serves 2-3)
2 TBS of White Miso soup (please experiment with various miso’s, red is one of our favorites) (You may want to increase or decrease the amount of miso paste used, to a lighter or heavier broth.)
1 package Of silkened Tofu (drained, and cubed)
Small Bunch Watercress
Directions: A pot of 4-6 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, dissolve the miso paste, place the tofu in the pot, with a handful of watercress.
Enjoy this simple, quick, healthy soup.
Featured Guest Photographer: Marco Mayer
Make: NIKON CORPORATION
Model: NIKON D3S