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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.