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Dec 19, 2001 01:56 PM

Unagi w/ out MSG?

  • d

I'm beginning to wonder whether nearly all the unagi that we're eating at sushi joints has MSG. Every large Asian grocery I've checked in the South Bay(Ranch 99, Lions amongst others) only carry brands with MSG. I thought perhaps I'd found a clean source the other day at Creekside Smokehouse in Half Moon Bay (actually up the road in El Granada, which, by the way, is an outstanding source for cold smoked salmon). He had some packaged there, but when asked, informed me that he just buys it from a wholesaler and it did, in fact, have MSG. As far as he's concerned, that's all that is out there. Any insights? From a health standpoint, even if you don't have obvious reactions to it, MSG does cause damage to your nervous system. Something that can truely be a drag down the road.

On a simillar topic, does anyone know of any good Japanese groceries in the South Bay? Again, I know of plenty of Asian supermarkets with Japanese products, but am looking for strictly Japanese. Perhaps with a fish counter?

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  1. I don't know the answer to your unagi-MSG dilemma, but the nearest Japanese market is Mitsuwa in SJ. I'm surprised that you haven't been (at least it sounds like you haven't). The link below shows all the store locations in the US. BTW, I'm a bit suspect about your info on MSG being that bad. From what I can gather, MSG has ill effects for that small percentage of people who have reactions to it, but it's innocuous otherwise. If you have any evidence to the contrary, please share.


    23 Replies
    1. re: Eric Eto

      After years of hearing about the pros and cons of MSG, I was prompted by these posts to look it up. There's a long discussion of MSG on the FDA website -- here are some quotes, and the link is provided below.

      "Injections of glutamate in laboratory animals have resulted in damage to nerve cells in the brain.
      Consumption of glutamate in food, however, does not cause this effect."

      "Glutamate itself is in many living things: It is found
      naturally in our bodies and in protein-containing foods, such as cheese, milk, meat, peas, and mushrooms."

      "A 1991 report by the European Communities' (EC) Scientific Committee for Foods reaffirmed MSG's safety and classified its "acceptable daily intake" as "not specified," the most favorable designation for a food ingredient. In addition, the EC Committee said, "Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate."

      "A 1992 report from the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association stated that glutamate in any form has not been shown to be a "significant health hazard."

      "Also, the 1987 Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization have placed MSG in the safest category of food ingredients."

      There's a discussion of MSG symptom complex aka "Chinese restaurant syndrome" which points out that most of the evidence is anedotal, and then a discussion of scientific studies on the subject. Here are some conclusions:

      "* In otherwise healthy MSG-intolerant people, the MSG symptom complex tends to occur within one hour after eating 3 grams or more of MSG on an empty stomach or without other food. A typical
      serving of glutamate-treated food contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. A reaction is most likely if the MSG is eaten in a large quantity or in a liquid, such as a clear soup."

      "* Severe, poorly controlled asthma may be a predisposing medical condition for MSG symptom complex."

      "* No evidence exists to suggest that dietary MSG or glutamate contributes to Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's chorea, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, AIDS dementia complex, or any other long-term or chronic diseases."

      "* No evidence exists to suggest that dietary MSG causes brain lesions or damages nerve cells in humans."

      "* The level of vitamin B6 in a person's body plays a role in glutamate metabolism, and the possible impact of marginal B6 intake should be considered in future research."

      "* There is no scientific evidence that the levels of glutamate in hydrolyzed proteins causes adverse effects or that other manufactured glutamate has effects different from glutamate normally found in foods."


      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        The "MSG is a naturally occuring compound" is one that the MSG industry lobby likes to make. It does, however, have it's holes. Glutamic acid does occur natually in meat broths, miso, and kombu. However, this naturally occuring form is absorbed very slowly into the intestines and rarely causes adverse reactions. MSG, on the other hand is absorbed almost instantly into the bloodstream via the mouth, lungs, and stomach.

        By and large, I take much of what the FDA says with a grain of salt. My wife is a nutritionist and has pointed out on many occasions where they have misled the public greatly.

        1. re: Detlef Chef

          How do you absorb something you eat directly through your lungs?

          Just asking.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Very good question. Frankly, I was just typing directly from the book. Perhaps it is carried in the fumes? I think the point was that the synthetic form that appears in most of our food is absorbed far too quickly.

            1. re: Detlef Chef

              I think you have to be very careful when applying discussion of what is possible from a scientific and experimental point of view to real-world behavior. It's quite possible that someone studying the physiological effects of a chemical (such as MSG) would note that it could be absorbed by lung tissues under laboratory conditions (i.e. direct exposure) without meaning that it is actually absorbed under conditions it is found in daily life.

              It is very easy to misinterpret scientific information, especially if it is being presented second-hand from a source that is leaving out import context, either deliberately or simply because the writer doesn't understand the importance of the context.

              There is a tremendous amount of bad science reporting, particularly bad medical reporting, in the popular media. Much of it has to due with circumstances like this that are talking about cause and effect in abstract and epidemiological terms.

              For example, how often have you heard a report in the media that says something like: X has been shown in a study to double the incidence of Y. Wow! That sounds impressive! Of course the context was (a) it was a small-scale, preliminary study, (b) the incidence of X is only 1 in 500, so doubling it makes it a whopping 2 in 500. Still prompted to say Wow!?

              That doesn't mean that the study was wrong (although another study might have different results -- science is an ongoing process, and rarely definitive), only that it doesn't really have much significance in the way we lead our lives (at least I'm not going to change my life in any significant way to differentiate between a 1 in 500 and 2 in 500 probability).

              As I pointed out in another message, man-made MSG has been used for almost 100 years by literally hundreds of millions of people -- more than any scientific study. If real-world usage (not laboratory experimentation designed to push the limits) had any significant toxic effects on the population as whole (not the small number of sensitive individuals), "we" would know it by now. In my opinion, of course.

          2. re: Detlef Chef

            Personally, I get sometimes a little tired when I eat at my favorite places that use MSG. But I really can't say it's the MSG or the 2pm lag and it does not stop me from eating at those places. I am more worried about the squirt cheese I ate growing up. :-)

          3. re: Ruth Lafler

            Just to present equal time for the opposite side of the debate, here's a quote from one source (link below) of collected findings:

            "MSG is a neurotoxin, potentially toxic to everyone -- even those who do not respond with adverse reactions such as migraine headache, asthma, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, disorientation, and depression. We know that MSG kills brain cells in laboratory animals. We know this from studies wherein MSG was given in large doses and from studies were MSG was given in drinking water. We know that MSG causes macular degeneration (retinal degeneration). We know that learning disabilities and endocrine disorders such as gross obesity and reproductive disorders often follow the death of brain cells in animals. We also know that children and the elderly are most at risk from the toxic effects of MSG."


            1. re: Dennison

              Excuse me, but do you consider a scare site like that to be a legitimate source for what "we" know? I didn't see one legitimate source or study cited (lots of people using scare tactics to push books, though).

              If all those things that "we" know are true, then why aren't they reflected in the populations of Asia, where MSG use has been widespread for almost 100 years?

              Or is Japan populated by blind, neurologically damaged obese people and we just haven't noticed?

              The FDA information (citing reputable sources like the AMA and the WHO) clearly pointed out that MSG causes neurological problems when injected, but that is it broken down in the digestive system. It also appears from what they said that if you drink large amounts of MSG in a clear liquid (water, for example) you might get sick. Of course this is true of many other substances: very few things are completely benign if you consume large quantities of them on an empty stomach.

              Common sense, people. Common sense.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Ruth, I always appreciate your insights on this board. Where do you find the time to be as diligent as you are? I am, however, having trouble with seeing your stance on this topic. I am not a scientist, so I can't be sure which of all these studies is right. Further, as irritated as I get about the abundance of conspiracy theorist we have in the Bay Area, I've been having a harder and harder time trusting everything gov't agencies tell me. Over the years we've had no shortage of bad things literaly shoved down our throats only to find they were poisonous years later. It's as if the motto is: Make money off it today, ask questions later. There is alot of money throughout the world that would be very ill served to see people avoiding MSG, and I can't help but think that taints these studies.

                Funny, MSG is just another in a line of things that we've borrowed from asia an then gotten totally carried away with. Again, the compounds found in synthetic MSG also occur in many foods from there. Soy Sauce, Miso, and Kombu to name a few. So yes, they've been eating it for years. Compare that intake to the typical US diet filled with instant soups and artificially flavored foods and you've got another thing entirely.

                When we determined that soy based foods in Japanese diets helped prevent heart disease, we again went overboard. While they're doing a little tofu here, a little soy sauce there, we're putting it everything until an alarming number of the population is alergic to it. Dare we raise questions of soy? Hell, they've been eating it for years in asia.

                All that said, I suppose it's not the end of the world if we eat a bit of unagi now and then, but I'm certainly not convinced that MSG is as benign as they tell us.

                1. re: Detlef Chef

                  I appreciate your kind words, and I think you put your finger on it: anything in excess can be unhealthy.

                  Still, the reason that I'm so irritated by these scares and conspiracies is that they deflect attention from the real things we can do to improve our health and well-being. They are in fact just another example of the "magic pill" syndrome that is so common in America: the search for one simple thing that you can either do or not do that will cure all your ills and regrow your hair [g].

                  Eating a well-balanced diet with a wide variety of fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, exercising moderately 3-5 times a week and wearing your seat belt isn't "sexy" -- much more fun to blame it on sugar/yeast/fat/carbs/MSG/preservatives/agribusiness/doctors who are suppressing cancer cures/whatever and easier to believe you can "cure" your ills with soy/oat fiber/high-protein diets/green tea/vinegar/shark cartilege/whatever.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Looks like using some types of shampoo, even not in excess, might be dangerous.

                    As a matter of fact, many of U.S.-made shampoo have forced me to feel sick.

                    "anything in excess can be unhealthy"


                2. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I don't intend to fan these flames further since this is quite clearly one of those flashpoint issues that quickly deteriorate into pointless bickering. This particular discussion is a microcosm of the fundamental differences in opinion between the established health authorities (FDA, AMA, WHO, etc.) and much of the alternative/holistic wellness community. Similar food issues include refined sugar and dairy products. Over time, it's become quite clear that neither group has a monopoly on "common sense" -- which by the way is a rather amusing phrase since sense is by no means common. While one viewpoint holds that the site I cited is a "scare" site, the other believes that the FDA/AMA powers-that-be often downplay issues that may represent very real and present health dangers.

                  Both sides are firmly entrenched and no amount of "research" cited here will change anyone's mind and will just detract from the discussion of good food. Let's just agree to disagree, allow others to practice their own brand of common sense according to their beliefs and by following the lead of their own bodies, and try to answer Detlef's original question of where to find MSG-free unagi. So in the interests of maintaining the peace, I offer up a very simple MSG-free unagi recipe to all.

                  First, get a fishmonger to dress an eel for you (it's highly recommended that you don't attempt this yourself). Combine 1/2 cup sake, 1/2 cup soy sauce, 2 tbsps mirin and 2 tbsps sugar and bring to a boil. Add to this a few scraggly bits of eel to get the flavor going. Reduce sauce until it's slightly thickened then use to baste eel filets as you grill them over hardwood charcoal.

                  1. re: Dennison

                    Very well put, and thanks for the recipe. I'll try it soon.

                    1. re: Dennison

                      roast them over coals, eh?

                      my my. shouldn't you be worried about carcinogens from the charcoal rather than the MSG?

                  2. re: Dennison
                    Janet A. Zimmerman

                    Dennnison quotes: "We know that MSG kills brain cells in laboratory animals. We know this from studies wherein MSG was given in large doses..."

                    My question is: How large? Many substances are toxic given in large enough doses. Large enough doses of iron or vitamin A will kill you, and they'll do it a lot faster than MSG ever could. Ruth's right; concentrate on MSG as it is actually consumed -- that is, eaten in food in small amounts -- and don't get off the track with unnatural lab studies and what they "prove."

                    1. re: Dennison

                      How come Japan has many senior citizens? If MSG kills people, they will die young.

                      "MSG is a neurotoxin, potentially toxic to everyone."

                      1. re: Hiko Ikeda

                        By that logic, smoking and chronic late-night drinking must be okay too.

                        1. re: chowhoundX

                          My grandmother, a heavy smoker, died at around 90. She used MSG like almost everybody in Japan. I recall she said drinking late night made her sleep well.

                          1. re: Hiko Ikeda

                            I guess you're right, Hiko. Only the good die young.

                            1. re: chowhoundX
                              randy salenfriend

                              You're so right X! In fact, further to the Grandmother theme, mine is still alive at 95 or so and used to say,"Only the good die young. That's why I'm still alive"!!

                  3. re: Eric Eto

                    Thanks for the heads up on the marketplace.

                    I found some of the research on MSG that I was refering to earlier. To begin with, the compound poses a much larger risk to children (and unborn infants) than it does to adults. MSG is catagorized as an excitoxin, which is a chemical that causes brain cells to become overexcited and fire uncontrollably. MSG (along with other excitoxins like aspartame) can cause permanent damage to a growing brain and nervous system. I could bore you with details about how dendrites are excessively "pruned" during brain development when high levels of MSG are present, but that could get rather long winded. In pregnancy, there is evidence that MSG may be concentrated on the fetal side of the placenta so the child, in fact, recieves a higher dose. Rather unfortunate indeed.

                    In regards to it's effects on adults, the severe reactions to particularly sensitive people, include dizziness, violent diarrhea and even anaphlylactic shock. Long term ingestion of MSG have been found to lead to Parkinsons and Alzheimers. Animal testing has linked MSG with brain lesions, retinal degeneration and obesity.

                    Perhaps some of these claims may be overblown. Certainly large food manufacturers who stake their profits on low grade garbage pumped up with MSG would like to make us think so. Although the sources that I've just quoted have alot less to gain by people avoiding MSG than General Foods has in us not doing so.

                    None the less, a little unagi here and there won't kill you. Just lay of the Dorritos and powdered chicken base.

                    1. re: Detlef Chef

                      "the sources that I've just quoted"

                      -- what sources???

                      1. re: msg lover

                        Not exactly a bibliography...

                  4. Have you considered buying fresh, live eel and preparing it yourself?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: ironmom

                      One of my best food adventures occurred when my then 12 year old son caught an eel in Long Island Sound. Of course he wanted to eat his catch. I nailed the eel's head to the deck, cut around the head and pulled the skin off with pliers, just like pulling off a stocking. I cut it up, sauteed it in bacon drippings and we all had a very nice feed. Pat

                    2. Although I have been reading Japan-based magazines and newspapers targeting "gaijin" readers, I NEVER saw anybody becoming ill because of MSG.

                      If it is harmful, most of embassies located in Tokyo will have warning statements for their nations' residents in Japan. In addition, Japan's Ministry of Health remove will ban it.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: Hiko Ikeda

                        I'm glad you never saw me become ill because of MSG... not a pretty sight.

                        If by "ill" we mean "causing suffering or distress" or "something that disturbs" then I suppose those (infamous?) restaurants that claim "we use no MSG" are more aware than the embassies in Japan

                        1. re: Jim Stacy

                          Since the U.S. media fanatically presented hey-Japanese-food-is-dangerous stories, I have paying attention to all food-related illness articles printed in the Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the world.

                          None of hospitalized people in Japan was due to eaitng eels and/or MSG, according to my reading of the Tokyo-based daily.

                        2. re: Hiko Ikeda

                          this would be the same compassionate and concerned Health Ministry that took such quick and decisive action on the Minamata poisoning, Mr Ikeda?

                          the same government that has a government-owned company that sells and promotes cigarettes to its people?

                          1. re: troublemaker

                            Hiko is a woman's name.

                            1. re: ironmom

                              Actually, I've been wondering about this myself. Hiko is certainly not a common Japanese woman's name -- I've never met one. Maybe Ikeda-san is using the last part of his first name: Masahiko, etc?

                              Ikeda-san, do tell... (if you don't mind revealing whether you are M/F).

                        3. Oh the MSG debate.

                          1. MSG is a derivative of kombu seaweed, has been used for centuries, and in some cuisines it's considered an essential flavour, like salt, sweet, sour, bitter.

                          2. I have never seen anyone get sick off a normal amount of MSG in food (neither salt, sweet, sour, bitter, etc.). I imagine if you overdo it on the MSG, you'd get sick, just like if you ate too much salt or sugar. I once thought I got ill from MSG after eating a whole bag of O'Boisies (remember those horrible potato chips? do they still make them?). But I don't think it was the MSG -- think of all the salt and grease!

                          3. I've seen "scientific studies" that say MSG is bad, I've seen studies that say MSG is fine, I've even seen some that say it's good. Who do we trust and how do they know what they know?

                          4. For myself, the most compelling arguments I've seen say MSG is just fine, unless it's hugely over-consumed. And even then the effects are temporary, like if you ate too much sugar.

                          5. I think it's unfair and a little suspicious that so many Asian restaurants in America have had to resort to neon "No MSG" signs, in order to assure consumers that they're OK. Why aren't there signs outside steakhouses that say "No Hormone Beef"? Or French restaurants that say "Our creme is organic"? Or Italian restaurants that assure customers that their polenta is GMO-free? Or half of your food products (like McDonalds french fries) that have hydrogenated oils in them?

                          I find these things far more dangerous and unhealthy than a long-used seaweed derivative.

                          Some bits for further study:



                          1. Try sushi from Whole Food Market. You can ask for ingredient list there.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: eathealthy

                              Opening post and replies are from 2001.

                              Hal, with apologies to Arthur Clarke