kitchen myths & fads: msg and a tofu kombu white miso soup recipe

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.

miso souop

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.

Photo Details:
Featured Guest Photographer: Marco Mayer
ApertureFNumber: f/11.0
Make: NIKON CORPORATION
Model: NIKON D3S
ExposureTime: 1/160
FNumber: 11/1
ExposureProgram: 1
ISOSpeedRatings: 125
MaxApertureValue: 32/10
MeteringMode: 2
LightSource: 0
Flash: 0
FocalLength: 105/1

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16 comments

    • February 11, 2012 at 4:52 pm //

      Thank you Gerlinde = )

  • February 11, 2012 at 7:05 pm //

    Excellent and informative post on MSG. MY local Chinese takeout has MSG in a circle with a cross through it to calm the people who insist on them leaving it out lol The white miso soup with tofu looks beautiful and so comforting and tasty!

    • February 11, 2012 at 7:39 pm //

      Thank you for commenting Lisa, YES those little signs are EVERYWHERE, aren’t they? Do you think it does the trick? Reassures the customers?

  • February 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm //

    Wow, what an incredibly informative post. Thank you so much for the MSG lesson. The miso soup is simple and amazing. Your photography is beautiful.

    • February 12, 2012 at 9:42 pm //

      Thank you so much for commenting Maggie = )

  • February 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm //

    Interesting topic. My grandmother’s book, The Art of Good Cooking by Paula Peck, was written in the 1960′s and it literally has MSG in almost every other recipe (I am now now modernizing many of these recipes and leaving it out). I guess it was just like salt back then. It still surprises me how many regular items at the grocery store still has MSG – check out the ingredients on those condensed Cambells soup!

    • February 12, 2012 at 1:56 pm //

      That is so True Megan, it amazes us! Even mayo, which lists “natural flavors” is natural occurring MSG, how far does one go or not go with additives that are inconclusive? It’s so complex. I wonder how MSG was used in the 60′s? Did it come in a powder?

  • February 13, 2012 at 12:14 am //

    Your pictures are absolutely stunning!

    My mum used to put MSG in all our foods and when I was younger I used to ask what it was, she said “it’s a special salt that brings out the flavour in food”. I believe that, and I’ve never gotten sick eating it, but I don’t use it in my cooking preferring natural MSG (parmasean, tomato concentrate, soy sauce) for flavouring instead.

    • February 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm //

      Totally agree Maya, the natural based flavor enhancer is the best and natural way to go, wish more packaged products used more natural enhancers too.

  • February 13, 2012 at 2:50 am //

    I know there are so many products in Asia that contains MSG. Good thing is that we started to have a lot of MSG products being available in Japan already, but unless you buy imported products (all written in Japanese), most people end up with MSG products made here. I hope they will also start changing. It’s so easy to make dashi stock from scratch, and there is no need to use MSG dashi powder. I really love your photography Marie! So beautiful… :-)

      • February 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm //

        OH MSG Free in Nippon? Or in The US?

    • February 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm //

      Ah… Nami, I wonder if Amino San (Amino Acid) is the natural make-up of MSG? In Japan, coloring in foods aren’t used because of the adverse effects from chemical dyes, so I wonder if it’s wrong to assume that the MSG (amino acid) is okay as the natural flavor enhancer….hmmm

      EVEN Miso paste has Amino San…no need I think because it’s already fermented. MOIIII “wink”. I think it’s unnecessary too, but surprisingly, every packaged product has that stamp “amino san” if it’s a savory product.

      Camille and I both get headaches from the chemical MSG, but the natural form doesn’t seem to bother us too much.

      What do you think Nami san?

  • February 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm //

    Awesome recipe. I want to make a comment though:

    “Or, if a person is consuming both types of MSG can it be overload?”

    If a person knows that they’re consuming MSG (and this also seems to happen for vegans with meats), and in their mind they have this aversion to it, they’ll develop response in the body. A psychosomatic response. Some people will become physically ill.

    I would also be very weary of posting biased resources in any kind of argument. Research hasn’t been very conclusive on relating health problems to MSG.

    • February 19, 2012 at 8:38 am //

      Cynthia, thank you for reading our post. We appreciate your comments.

      We agree that a psychosomatic response is always possible.

      However, how do you explain, to a child, who has never heard of MSG, whose parents never heard of MSG, that they are having as psychosomatic response to MSG?

      Telling someone that they are having a psychosomatic response is a delicate subject that can be a bit insulting.

      On the topic of posting biased resources: Our text included information from two sources on opposing sides of the argument; the FDA and Truth.org. The FDA approves the use of MSG and finds it “generally safe”. Truth .org would probably disagree with that statement. Who is right? Who is biased and who isn’t? The FDA is a government agency and it has an objective.

      MSGTruth.org also has an objective as well as a long list of independent studies on MSG. http://www.msgtruth.org/related.htm

      We looked at two sides of a coin in our discussion. We are a food blog that discusses a myriad of topics. Our opinion is reflected in our text, in our blog. We are not a scientific journal.