Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, January 10, 2014

Damning on Short Reason

"For me, the way that I'm looking at umami, it's the same way I look at MSG. It's one in the same"
David Chang, chef, Momofuku

"FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS). 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."
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Studies into the safety of MSG use have provided mixed results; some confirm findings of brain lesions in animals or symptoms in humans, but other studies are unable to replicate the findings. Double-blind studies often show little correlation between MSG and adverse symptoms. From the FDA to the United Nations to various governments (Australia, Britain and Japan), MSG is deemed a safe food additive.

Yet it has garnered a decidedly unsavoury reputation as a food additive to be avoided at all costs. And it has the reputation of leading to "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome", for those claiming to be MSG-sensitive. It is prevalent in Chinese cooking to enhance stocks and vegetarian dishes. And it is also widely used in many convenience pre-prepared foods; (read the small print). Yet chefs like David Chang and Adam Fleischman of the chain Umami Burger celebrate it as a culinary taste of huge value.

Away back in 1908, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda was curious about what it was that gave dashi, a common Japanese soup base its flavour. Dashi is a fermented base of boiled seaweed and dried fish, used widely by chefs in preparing meals; it was its special meaty taste that appealed. And Professor Ikeda was determined to discover just what it was that gave that special taste. He took the seaweed Laminaria japonica through a series of chemical experiments, evaporated it to isolate a compound and ended up with a crystalline form.

Tasting the resulting crystals he found there the savoury taste that made dashi so distinct, and he called it umami, meaning delicious. Changing culinary taste thought to include among sweet, salty, bitter and sour the new umami taste. The molecular formula of the crystals was identified as C5H9NO4, similar to glutamic acid, an amino acid the human body produces on its own. Glutamate is one of the most abundant neurotransmitters to excite the brain; helping in memory and learning.

Professor Ikeda began mass-producing Ajinomoto ("essence of taste") a year later, industrially producing glutamate through the fermentation of vegetable proteins, and the resulting sodium salt form of glutamic acid became famous for its flavour introduced into dishes to enhance the flavour of food. And its use became commonplace in Japan and began spreading elsewhere in the world.

MSG - Monosodium Glutamate - What is MSG? - MSG Effects
MSG - Monosodium Glutamate - What is MSG? - MSG Effects
A sack of MSG.
Photo © Danilo Alfaro
"The short answer is that there is no difference: [between MSG and "natural" glutamates] Glutamate is glutamate is glutamate", says Richard Amasino, professor of bio-chemistry at University of Wisdonsin-Madison.

Time to hang up our hang-up over the taste-sensation, monosodium glutamate.

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