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MSG or Not? [moved from LA]

I'm curious to hear from other chowhounders about how you *know* that a restaurant has added MSG to the food. Do you get a certain taste? Symptoms? I remember the hoo-hah about "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" years ago, but I eat lots of Asian food and can't honestly say I've noticed a definite effect. I used to go along with the popular assertion that MSG is "evil," but I'm not so sure anymore. I certainly wouldn't cook with it, but if what I've been reading in posts about pho and other things is true, I have to assume that I consume a lot of it every time I eat something brothy and flavorful, and I'm sure not going to give those foods up (for example, my husband and I like Golden Deli, and it would never have occurred to us to wonder about MSG, but I've read in other posts that they do use it). Is that a reasonable assumption (that MSG is ubiquitous), and how can one ever tell short of asking?

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  1. MSG has, IMHO, gotten a generally bad rap. It's really only a quick way to add some umami to things--there are other ways, fish sauce, dashi, etc etc., but MSG is fine in my book.

    Lots of studies have been done to determine whether there really is a widespread MSG allergy out there and they have come up short. Others, tho, claim that, while it's true the MSG itself is not a problem, other substances that accompany it are, so it amounts to the same thing. If Marie Lorraine (sp?) pipes in on this one she'll provide more info.

    2 Replies
    1. re: johnb

      Yeah, I can't really criticize it since I gleefully eat so much Asian food. But I was curious whether one can perceive its presence in some way, or if it's just an umami thing--like if I have a super-flavorful broth, do I assume that's because of MSG, or because the chef does other things to make the flavor stand out? (I guess those other things could include fish sauce, dashi, etc. so the point is moot!) No worries or value judgement here, simply a culinary curiosity. I think I have a pretty good sense of taste, but I can't tell and have never had a headache or other bad reaction. I suppose someone with sodium-sensitive hypertension might want to know...but they'd probably avoid all salty broths in general. In the end, it doesn't matter, I just get curious about weird stuff sometimes!

      1. re: johnb

        In many cases it is the tyramines, not the MSG, that causes the problem. Certain foods that tend to have MSG like soy sauce are also high in tyramines. I know I react to the tyramines, not the MSG. I tend to get the Chinese food headache, but even smelling fermented items that are high in tyramine like red wine or beer can trigger asthma attacks.

      2. jfood gets light-headed if the food has MSG in it. And asking if there is MSG inthe food it is similar to asking if the food is good. The server will always tell you there is No MSG and Yes the food is good.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jfood

          Yesterday a restaurant owner told me he neve uses anything but salt and pepper (oh sure!) and right behind him on the back of his stove was a collection of things that were not salt or pepper. Yeah, these people lie. They call glutamates natural flavoring. Now, if it were genuinely chocolate, or strawberry or whatever, don't you think they'dhave that in bold letters?

        2. There was just an episode on the Food Channel's Food Detectives where they debunked the whole MSG myth.

          They brought a bunch of people into a restaurant and fed them, 1/2 got MSG 1/2 did not, but were not told so. When asked id they had MSG symptoms more people that didn't get the MSG said they had symptoms than those that actually got it.

          MSG is just salt and an amino acid and is an enhancer to the 5th taste, umami. IF you want cut out glutamate you should cut out tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan cheese

          12 Replies
          1. re: Jack_

            jfood saw that episode and it would not get a passing grade in an intro statistics course.

            1. re: jfood

              How 'bout this one, then?

              71 healthy subjects were treated with placebos and monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) doses of 1.5, 3.0 and 3.15 g/person, which represented a body mass-adjusted dose range of 0.015-0.07 g/kg body weight before a standardized breakfast over 5 days. The study used a rigorous randomized double-blind crossover design that controlled for subjects who had MSG after-tastes. Capsules and specially formulated drinks were used as vehicles for placebo and MSG treatments. Subjects mostly had no responses to placebo (86%) and MSG (85%) treatments. Sensations, previously attributed to MSG, did not occur at a significantly higher rate than did those elicited by placebo treatment. A significant (P < 0.05) negative correlation between MSG dose and after-effects was found.

              Tarasoff, et al., Monosodium L-glutamate: a double-blind study and review (1993) 21 Food Chem Toxicol. (12):1019-35.

              1. re: alanbarnes

                Now THAT sounds like a good protocol. And at least jfood only fits into the 15% category.

                Thanks again AB, jfood can always count on you for this type of data.

                1. re: jfood

                  Now the only question is whether you're in the 15% that responded to MSG or the 15% that responded to the placebo. ;-)

              2. re: jfood

                Method 1: "They brought a bunch of people into a restaurant and fed them, 1/2 got MSG 1/2 did not, but were not told so. When asked id they had MSG symptoms more people that didn't get the MSG said they had symptoms than those that actually got it."

                Method 2: "71 healthy subjects were treated with placebos and monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) doses of 1.5, 3.0 and 3.15 g/person, which represented a body mass-adjusted dose range of 0.015-0.07 g/kg body weight before a standardized breakfast over 5 days. The study used a rigorous randomized double-blind crossover design that controlled for subjects who had MSG after-tastes. Capsules and specially formulated drinks were used as vehicles for placebo and MSG treatments."

                In terms of "statistics", theses two simple methods are basically the same. They're written up in different styles is all. The results are sufficiently similar as well.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  No they are not.

                  Method one describes a single test, single blind analysis without any consideration to doseage. Method 2 specificallly states doseage control, double blind sn multiple data points per subject. Yes there was crapolla in method 2, ie the doseage before a breakfast that could scew the results, but you can read anything into these posts.

                  :-))

                  1. re: jfood

                    Details - but don't be impressed by the fancy bits and fluff. Statistically the two experiments are basically the same.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      statistics tell the truth and statisticians lie... :-))

                      1. re: jfood

                        In a simple test of the sort described, there are no real statistics involved - just a comparison of numbers of those people perceiving discomfort and those not.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          And atthe end of the day it effects jfood, so with a sample size of 1, jfood has his answer. :-))

                          1. re: jfood

                            And now you can now extrapolate from that sample to the universe of all people on the planet - past, present, and future.

                            [and no sideways grinning moron icon needed from you - I always know that your responses are good natured! Insert my own sideways grinning moron icon here]

                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              Thank you sammy, (in the voice of Topo Gigio from the Ed Sullivan Show)

            2. Thanks for the input! Sounds like the cited study was carefully done. So it looks like a few people may experience headaches, light-headedness, asthma attacks, etc. linked to MSG or a component...but this isn't the norm, according to the study. Does anyone (subjectively) experience a certain aftertaste, or sensation in the mouth, or anything? I know what umami "tastes" like, when I experience it in glutamate-rich foods, but those foods have other compounds in them besides glutamate (and is naturally-occurring glutamate chemically identical to monosodium L-glutamate?)--so I wondered...

              jfood, I hope you can find some decent Chinese food in the Midwest! I'm a native Southern Californian, grew up with the 60s version of "Chinese," and always thought I didn't like Chinese food--until I spent 10 years in the Midwest! I became friends with a Chinese immigrant who was a fabulous cook, and she really opened my eyes to her cuisine. Now I can't get enough of it. So maybe you'll get lucky and meet a good Chinese home cook or two.

              7 Replies
              1. re: happycat

                Given that it's impossible to prove a negative, it is probably going too far to say that MSG **doesn't** cause any response, but there isn't any proof that it does. When the same number of people respond to the placebo as respond to the tested substance, the conclusion is that the tested substance is not causing a measurable response.

                Glutamate does occur naturally with other substances that can cause all kinds of reactions. So it may be getting the rap for reactions that it isn't causing. Also, I'm curious as to the purity of commercial MSG, and, to the extent that it's impure, the kinds of impurities that accompany it. Suffice it to say there are more questions than answers.

                MSG does have a distinctive (and unpleasant) taste that isn't the same as umami. It's hard to describe but easy to experience - just put a small pinch of MSG on your tongue.

                Manufactured MSG is a very soluble salt. It almost immediately breaks down into a sodium ion and a glutamate ion - the same glutamate ion that occurs naturally. Some people argue that the ratio of L-glutamate to D-glutamate (it's an asymmetric molecule, so it can have "left-handed" and "right-handed" versions) is significant, but I'm unaware of any studies that support this conclusion.

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  Thank you for your thoughtful and scientific replies, AB, I appreciate the data. I suppose I could do some internet research myself...but I was more curious about peoples' *perceptions* of MSG. This curiosity started when I was reading about a pho place that is much-lauded for its wonderful broth. Many reviewers really liked the fact that, although not advertised, the chef reportedly doesn't use MSG--unlike many other popular pho places they named. Other reviewers said they *preferred* the MSG. And I was left wondering, well, how can they tell if there's MSG or not? Absence of a perception (good or bad)? Presence of a perception (good or bad)? I never paid much attention to the contents of my broth--to seriously mis-quote Dr. Ruth, "if it tastes good, eat it!" So I guess I'm not in the same 15% minority as jfood; I just can't tell, myself. Maybe I *should* go out and buy some MSG to taste!

                  1. re: happycat

                    In my opinion, most cooks who use a lot of MSG do so as a "cheat." It's a whole lot easier to dump a bunch of manufactured umami into a stock or sauce than to develop the flavor through traditional means.

                    There are exceptions to this rule. David Chang of Momofuku fame is a prime example. And if you have an intensely flavorful dish to begin with, maybe a little MSG will kick it right over the top. But I think it's fair to say that higher-quality food generally doesn't have the stuff.

                    Seriously, though, pick up a bottle of Ajinomoto next time you're at the store. It's cheap, and if some day your homemade chicken soup seems like it needs a little something extra...

                    1. re: alanbarnes

                      I tend to agree with you; hence the purists' horror of MSG. Didn't know about David Chang, though--that's interesting.

                      My favorite flavor enhancer (for Western food) is anchovies--lots of natural glutamates there. I once took a tube of anchovy paste on a backpacking trip where my brother had lugged all the makings for lamb stew. It needed a little "something" and when I offered the anchovy paste, he was dubious, but trusted me. It worked like a charm and now he always uses it in his lamb stew!

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        AB

                        Am I cheating when I use kombu in all my stocks and stews?!

                        1. re: alwayscooking

                          Though you address your question to AB, let me throw in my 2 cents worth: No, I wouldn't say you are "cheating" at all. No more than if you used, say, mushrooms in your stock. Or Parmesan cheese rind. Or fish sauce. I think that all cultures have favorite stock ingredients that are naturally rich in glutamates to enhance flavor--and that have additional flavors of their own. But as AB says, MSG is a shortcut. It can be abused by cooks who use it as a *substitute* for real technique in the kitchen.

                          1. re: alwayscooking

                            Depends. If you cook up a flavorful stock or broth and add kombu to make it even tastier, then no. If you try to compensate for the low quality of an otherwise flavorless stew by adding kombu, then yes. But I kind of doubt you do that.

                  2. I do not go out and buy msg and put it in my food. However, there is one seasoning that I grew up on and continue to use and that is g. washington broth, which contains msg. All the people I know complainers etc., swear that they are allergic eat my food all time and have never gotten sick and have always said how goood the food is. I think it is one of those things everyone gets on the bandwagon on and then don't let go. Now don't think that I am going to add straight msg to the food.

                    1. MSG is also in a lot of processed foods under different names, like "hydrolyzed yeast extract" -- so if you don't react to things like flavored chips, whatever you're reacting to in your Chinese food is not MSG.

                      If something has a lot of MSG it has a distinctive taste, and I get dry mouth from a meal with too much MSG. It's not really that different than regular table salt: some enhances the flavor of food, more makes it taste salty, and enough will make you thirsty -- let's talk about NaCl syndrome!

                      1. Doritos has MSG.

                        In fact, most of the menu items on McDonald's, Burger King and KFC have significant MSG content.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Given the ubiquitous use of MSG, now I'm curious about how the silly Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and all the rest of MSG's bad reputation ever got started in the first place.

                          1. re: johnb

                            Well, thank you, johnb! That should put a lot of questions to rest. And the timing of the phrase explains why I spent so much of my childhood exposed to the notion of CRS. My mother claimed that the "effect" could be countered by drinking alcohol with dinner ; P

                            1. re: happycat

                              And if it's a gin and tonic, you prevent malaria at the same time!!!

                              I may not have to worry about the ailment, but I'm more than happy to take the cure.

                              1. re: happycat

                                It appears the moderators have seen fit to remove the post of mine that you have responded to, so for posterity here once again is, at least, the link that contains the story of how CRS was "created," if not the whole quote:

                                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutamic...

                                Hopefully it will remain

                              2. re: happycat

                                My favorite was my cousin complaining about how all the MSG in Chinese food gives her migranes -- all the while munching on a bag of Cheetos.

                                You eat processed food, you eat lots of MSG, period.

                                1. re: dmd_kc

                                  That is because cheetos have potassium glutamate instead of sodium glutamate.

                            2. It's strange that so many people associate MSG with Chinese food when Ajinomoto is a Japanese company and one of the most common Japanese cooking ingredients(instant dashi) has lots of MSG in it. Good restaurants will make their own from scratch, but I'm sure a lot of home cooks use instant dashi. I suppose the perception that Japanese food is healthier plays a part in that.

                              1. Just a couple more comments:

                                First, even if MSG sensitivity affects some people, that doesn't mean that MSG is inherently "evil" -- saying MSG is evil because some people are sensitive is as silly as saying that strawberries or shellfish are "evil" because some people are allergic. If it's not a problem for you, then there's no reason to think that MSG is intrisically "evil."

                                Second, as to whether restaurants should be avoided if they use MSG or whether restaurants that use MSG are better, the answer is ... maybe. Some restaurants use MSG to make up for the fact that they are using poor quality ingredients and/or cutting corners on preparation and thus the food is flavorless without a boost from MSG. Those restaurants you should probably avoid. On other hand, there are some dishes and preparations where part of the traditional flavor profile is a dash of MSG or a seasoning that includes MSG. So when an Asian restaurant says they *never* use MSG they are either stretching the truth (they aren't using pure MSG, but they're using seasonings that contain MSG or contain compounds that are essentially MSG) or their flavors aren't truly authentic.

                                1. happycat, i hope i don't invoke the wrath of the chowhound community by saying this, but i do think i can tell when a restaurant has added MSG -- at least if the food isn't well made without MSG. i think those of us who didn't grow up eating MSG know how to identify complexity of flavor without MSG. when food lacks this complexity, but satisfies in a certain more unidimensional way, you can tell it has MSG. at least that's the criterion that i use. i don't get headaches from MSG. i do wonder if i don't become thirstier, after.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: cimui

                                    Well, there's so much MSG in everyday American food that I don't think many people fall under the category of having grown up without eating MSG.

                                    1. re: huaqiao

                                      hmm... apologies for speaking imprecisely. how about "those of us who didn't grow up eating *added* MSG" -- i.e. in the form of MSG crystals used in almost everything, here in China?

                                    2. re: cimui

                                      When I used the term "evil" I was, of course, kidding. But to hear some people I know talk about MSG, I think they actually mean it. It's like the latest diet or other heath-related "finding"--all too easy to get caught up the the zeitgeist and lose the capacity for independent and rational thought. And, cimui, I don't see anything wrath-inducing in your comment, it was precisely the sort of reply I've been asking for--a person's sensory perception of MSG, however hard to put a finger on. Thanks to everyone who's replied, you've given me a lot of great information to think about.

                                      Now I have to start getting ready for my lunch date. Spicy Chinese--yum! Super-flavorful and no doubt full of glutamates (:

                                    3. Why don't researchers finally come up with the conclusive study once and for all: survey Chinese restaurant workers regarding Lou Gherig's Disease. I mean, they are eating this stuff every day! If that doesn't lead you to some kind of conclusion, nothing will.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Steve

                                        Ah Steve--you have a such a gift for cutting to the quick, and in such a nice way. All truth is to be found on the Internet. Unfortunately it's buried among thousands of falsehoods.

                                        Here is a previous thread that brought out much good information on this topic, and put the lie to many falsehoods, some of which are reappearing here. The contributions of Maria Lorraine are particularly noteworthy IMO.

                                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/412771

                                        1. re: johnb

                                          I already believe that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is largely bunk. It seems to me if there is any validity to the claims of dangerous long term health, that it would be fairly easy and cost little to do a health survey.

                                          That's a very good thread, and I'll take another look at it to refresh my MSG-damaged memory!