By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST
If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the years, you’ve come to learn here, if not anywhere else, that food is perhaps the most universal connector of cultures and generations. Food knows no ethnicity, wealth or politics. It simply warms our hearts.
But we also have disagreements on such benign issues as Coke or Pepsi, to the Eastern world’s disdain for blue cheese, and our likewise feelings about fermented tofu.
But one ingredient has topped them all.
A Chinese man by the name of Robert Ho Man Kwok sent a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, in which he described symptoms of headache, heart palpitations and numbness in the back of his neck which would eventually move to his arms and back. He said these symptoms would come on 20 minutes after eating what he described as “northern Chinese food.”
With little to no research, the journal arbitrarily associated his symptoms with MSG and one editor called it “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Finally, other sufferers had a name for what they thought they felt, and almost overnight MSG became a vilified ingredient.
To this day, it carries such a stigma that I cannot think of another food or ingredient that divides more people with such myopic conviction.
A University of Tokyo chemistry professor wanted to know what made dashi broth so tasty. In 1907 he isolated the ingredients behind it: monosodium glutamate. He developed a white granular seasoning and started a company, Ahi-no-moto, which is still the standard commercially sold product today.
So just what is MSG made from? It is nothing more than the sodium extracted from glutamic acid. And glutamic acid is one of the most abundant, naturally occurring amino acids in our body. It is also common in many cheeses, tomatoes and most mushrooms, particularly shiitakes. One of the best sources of glutamic acid is human breast milk, which contains 10 times the amount found in cow or goat’s milk.
Additionally, glutamic acid is required by our brains for healthy function. And while it has been commonplace for many east Asian cultures to season food with MSG, which comes in a white granulated form, just like table salt, it is incorporated into many processed foods millions of people consume every day. Doritos is a prime example.
But much like other salts or sugar, there is a flavor limit. Add too much of any of these three, and the flavor is hijacked and becomes off-putting. The million-dollar question since that fateful letter to the editor in 1968: Are the allergies real?
The reality is that despite several studies over the decades, there is no substantial or scientific evidence that humans have any allergies to MSG. More importantly, it has stood up to every placebo-controlled, double blinded study.
So for lack of any better location to file it under, scientists put the MSG allergy into the category of phenomenon. Which means they recognize that some people can feel differently when they eat it, but it is most likely due to improper ratio of usage. For example, if you consume a lot of sugar, it enhances your energy, only to come down later like other drugs. Or when your body retains water from excessive salt intake.
The takeaway? Feel free to avoid it next time you are dining in an Asian (primarily Chinese or Japanese) restaurant, but know this: It is highly likely you have been consuming it on a regular basis for decades.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.