Mysterious Secret InGredient: What is MSG?

MSG

Mysterious Secret InGredient: What is MSG?

We have a few notions about MSG. It’s salty. It makes an appearance in Asian cuisine. And it may not be good for us. But what exactly is it? Can we really experience side effects from eating it? And overall, could it actually cause harm so that we can never eat instant ramen and Chinese cuisine again?? HELP!

What exactly is MSG?

To explain it in a way that is not terrifyingly scientific, MSG or monosodium glutamate is a compound of glutamic acid (a non-essential amino acid) and a sodium molecule.

You can find glutamic acid naturally in foods like tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. MSG on the other hand, was manufactured by a University of Tokyo chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. The discovery of MSG, added to the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter with a new taste called umami. Umami is used to describe a meaty and savory taste like in a juicy cheeseburger hence the popular burger chain called UMAMI Burger.

What about Side Effects? How did MSG gain a bad reputation?

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, or MSG symptom complex is a group of conditions some people report after having a meal that includes MSG. Symptoms reported included nausea, headaches, and numbness.

However, these symptoms were not reported until 1968 after a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine became popular. Ironically, a Chinese-American man, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok in the letter theorized that MSG was the culprit for his symptoms of numbness, general weakness, and palpitation after eating at Chinese restaurants. What adds to this interesting history is that MSG was actually quite popular prior to letter and not just in Chinese cuisine as it was heavily used in World War II to add flavor to bland soldiers’ rations.

Since 1968, studies have been done to confirm the safety of MSG as a food additive.

Harmful for my health?

The FDA has determined that MSG is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Double blind studies have shown little correlation between MSG and negative symptoms. The amount of MSG you eat in foods is also typically a very small amount so it’s not likely to cause any problems. But pun intended, take this information with a grain of salt. Because those that are against MSG claim that MSG producers fund these studies (and skew results…), while those that are for MSG claim those that are anti-MSG are just instilling fear in the public.

TLDR

Studies indicate that MSG is generally safe for most people. There may be an occasional person who is sensitive to it. If that is the case, read labels and avoid foods with added MSG. In addition, the FDA’s designation for MSG doesn’t mean that other aspects of the ingredient, like the sodium level are not of concern. So even though MSG is safe, it does not necessarily mean no consequences can come from eating a spoonful of it everyday. But feel free to enjoy your instant ramen with MSG flavoring as a treat once in awhile!

Resources:

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151106-is-msg-as-bad-as-its-made-out-to-be

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/its-the-umami-stupid-why-the-truth-about-msg-is-so-easy-to-swallow-180947626/

 

 

What is Your Food Package Telling You?

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Growing up I loved reading mystery novels and playing mystery board games. Yes, I was a Nancy Drew and Clue type of girl. I was captivated by the thrill and challenge of solving crimes with just a few hints…Mrs. Peacock in the library with a candlestick. It was fun decoding things that didn’t always mean what they appeared to be on face value.

Now that I’m older, sometimes I feel like I’m playing a confusing mystery game whenever I shop for groceries. Food packages have a variety of health claims and what do they really mean anyways? Is multigrain better than whole grain? Are organic cookies better for me? And if it says no trans fat then I can eat as much of it as I want, right?

This post is going to walk you through some of the challenges of understanding food packages. So grab your detective gear and let’s get started!

Multigrain vs. Whole Wheat Bread

When shopping for bread, we often automatically assume brown is good and white is bad. This may not necessarily be true. The key to understanding the difference between types of bread is to remember the word whole, which means the bread contains the entire grain. The reason why we look for whole grain is because the outer layer of the grain, the bran, is high in nutrients and dietary fiber. Without the word “whole” listed on packages, you won’t be receiving the health benefits associated with the bran.

  • Whole grain bread includes any grain. Examples of grains include quinoa, bulgur, rye, oats, and wheat.
  • Whole wheat bread only contains wheat as the grain.
  • Multigrain bread simply means that different types of grain were used to make the bread but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily more nutritious. Remember that the key is to look for the word “whole”!

Remember to look at the ingredients list. You want to see that the first ingredient contains the word whole, such as whole grain, whole wheat, etc.

No Trans Fat

When one serving of the product contains less than 0.5 g of trans fat, it can be labeled as 0g or no trans fat. However, if you see the words partially hydrogenated in the ingredients list, the food contains trans fat. Unlike saturated fat, trans fat is artificially created by the food industry and does not naturally occur in most foods. Try avoiding foods containing partially hydrogenated oils because trans fat has been associated with increased bad cholesterol, decreased good cholesterol, and increase risk of heart disease.

Lightly Sweetened

Products that are lightly sweetened don’t necessarily mean it’s low in sugar. It may surprise you to know that the FDA doesn’t regulate the term lightly sweetened. The FDA does regulate sugar-free and no added sugar, but what’s the difference?

  • Sugar-free: less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
  • No added sugar: no sugar was added during processing

Organic

The term “organic” means plant foods are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals used for meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products aren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones. There are three categories for labeling organic foods:

  • 100% organic
  • Organic: made with at least 95% organic ingredients
  • Made with organic ingredients: made with at least 75% organic ingredients

Keep in mind that foods labeled as organic can still be in high in fat, sugar, salt, or calories. Don’t depend on the organic label to tell you if it’s nutritious, always read food labels carefully!

Natural

The FDA defines foods without added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances as natural. However, these requirements don’t make a huge impact on ensuring the nutritional value of the food. For example, salt and sugar are natural ingredients but it doesn’t mean we should consume them in excess. To avoid falling into the all-natural trap, steer away from products with ingredients you can’t pronounce, which contain preservatives and food additives.