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Eating in Tokyo / MSG

Hey all,

I'm going to be in Tokyo for quite a while this spring, and I'm quite concerned that I won't be able to avoid MSG which I am severely allergic to.

I used to love Japanese soups/ramen, etc, but I'm worried that since i've become sensitive to it, I'll be limited to sushi and tonkatsu.

Does anybody have any tips on what I can for sure eat, and what i for sure *cannot* eat (Ramen, obsviously)? I would really appreciate any advice you can give me.

Also, please don't respond with something snarky.

Thanks!

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  1. First, I guess you have to figure out how sensitive you are to MSG, which is a naturally occurring substance. Manufactured MSG, and the MSG in things like dashi (Japanese soup stock) and soy sauce differ slightly in the concentrations of their isomers, but there's MSG in a lot of natural food.

    First, lets talk about manufactured MSG, or "Ajinomoto." I would estimate that among the Chinese food in Japan, including ramen, about 75% of places use MSG, with the concentration being higher for cheaper food and lower for nicer places. Among Japanese restaurants the use of Ajinomoto is less, but instant dashi has added MSG in it, and most places that charge you less than $10 for a meal probably make their miso soup and other broths with instant dashi. Cheap pickles are seasoned with Ajinomoto. Frozen fish cakes have lots of Ajinomoto. The more I think about it, the more it seems most processed food in Japan has MSG added to it, especially if it's frozen. Of course this isn't just in Japan. KFC puts MSG in almost everything they make. Most of the fast food companies have something with MSG in them if you look at their ingredients.

    On to natural MSG. If they make it with dashi or soy sauce, it has natural MSG in it. Virtually every liquid in Japanese food is made with dashi. All soup, including miso shiru; soba, udon, somen, hiyamugi, and every other noodle broth; chawanmushi; ankake (the goopy thickened broth); most nabe (hotpot) soup stocks; and dipping sauces like tempura sauce, are all made with dashi and thus have MSG in them. Soy sauce has quite a high concentration of glutamates in it too, so soy sauce and anything that has soy sauce in it, meaning almost every food that is brown, all have MSG. If you eat in Western restaurants watch out for Parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, and even tomatoes.

    My advise is to just not eat too much cheap food that has liquids in it. Although a lot of people believe they have severe allergies to MSG, most of them still eat food with MSG in it without knowing it. Soy sauce and tonkatsu sauce both have MSG in them, regardless of quality. That is part of the reason they taste good. Some cheap sushi bars actually put MSG in their sushi rice. If you really have an allergy to MSG, the highest concentration you are going to get is in soup or chinese food so just avoid that stuff. Chinese cooks in cheaper restaurants have a little dish of it next to the wok and throw in a teaspoon to most of the stuff they make. It's not hard for them to pick up a little more than you might want. I personally think that's what gives people a headache, the same way some processed sweets sometimes make my teeth hurt. Too much of anything can irritate your body. If you have miso soup with your ¥20,000 kaiseki dinner and you don't get a headache, it means you're not allergic to MSG. I'm not trying to be snarky, but there have been lots of studies that have had difficulty producing symptoms when giving people MSG in double blind studies. They tried hard and couldn't get repeatable evidence that differed greatly from placebo, probably because results differed based on the actual composition of the food. I'm not saying you're lying, I just want to point out that this is not as simple as a dash of Ajinomoto. Considering that, my advise, acknowledging that you are probably already eating MSG, is just to avoid processed food and cheap soup. The fact is good ramen places don't add anything to their soup stock that wouldn't be in the stock at a three-star-Michelin French restaurant.

    If you don't beleive me about the science (and there are more of these):
    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/jo...

    1. As with any severe allergies, it's always better to ask. I've been making reservations for our upcoming trip and so far, everyone has been very pleasant and accommodating about our dietary restrictions.

      Manufactured MSG is everywhere just as Brandon wrote above especially in industrial food and you won't exactly be 100% safe with sushi or tonkatsu sauce. On the other hand, there are ramen shops that do not use manufactured MSG and there is even a book telling you where they are:

      http://www.amazon.co.jp/無化調ラーメンMAP―東京...

      MSG is often listed as 調味料(アミノ酸等) in packaged food so you'd want to check the label for those words. Cupie mayonnaise contains MSG, Calbee potato chips also have MSG, and the list goes on and on. You probably would want to stay away from all the prepared food from convenience stores as well.

      1. It think its worth noting that Japanese MSG is almost always not the gooey substance you know from many Chinese restaurants in the west. For example my mom who says that she gets severe headaches from this stuff never complained in Japan at all, even though she probably ate the stuff daily.

        I am completely ignorant if there are actual medical conditions that forbid to eat MSG, but if you are afflicted by something like this, then please disregard what I said!

        Then again, Japan is not the perfect place for you anyway, as this stuff is -as brandon says- in basically everything, as almost all dishes are made with some variant of dashi, which btw is made from fish too. So also if you are a stricter vegetarian, life get's pretty tough here.

        1. Thanks for the replies guys...

          i guess it kind of confirms my worst fears.

          Brandon, you are well meaning, but i really hate hearing people preach about how harmless msg is when they've never had a bad reaction to it. Me? Can't sleep for days, dangerous tachycardia, vertigo, nausea, severe confusion, dis-coordination.

          Its about the worst reaction i can think of to anything. For sure its the worst reaction to any food or drug i've ever experienced. And i've experienced a lot.

          For the record, "natural" msg doesn't do a thing to me. Case closed for me. I guess if you've never had a emergency room reaction to the stuff than you'd be content to talk about the "science".

          I will definitely be avoiding the sauces... And i very very rarely eat any type of processed food anyways (out of necessity). I'm not the person that's eating msg all day long and doesn't realize it, ie i never eat the miso soup.

          Thanks for mentioning the pickles (who would guess?). Anything with dashi is out, and all the brown sauces i already knew. It kind of sucks given that Japanese used to be one of my all time favorites!

          Maybe I will risk a Ramen at a nice soup place...

          8 Replies
          1. re: bonemarrow

            This may be a psychologically induced condition, so since japanese food is really pretty and looking not MSG-ish at all, maybe you'll be fine?

            1. re: bonemarrow

              Well I have to say that sounds like hell to me. My concern with ramen would be that even if there's no MSG in the soup, one of the most common toppings is menma, which is a slivered bamboo shooot. I know most people don't make it themselves, even if they're "kodawari," or artisanal places. Packaged menma all has MSG in it, so get it without menma. If you can get that no-MSG ramen book that kikisakura linked to it might lead to lots of fun.

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

              You may not be able to dip it in soy sauce, but you can eat sashimi for sure. I have only heard of MSG in sushi rice at the cheapest places. Besides sashimi, honestly I'm having a hard time thinking of anything that's 100% safe, but even in the US I would be scared to eat anything in any restaurant if I were you. All the restaurants here use processed ingredients for everything too, as I'm sure you already know. Grilled fish in Japan is really good, but there's a tiny, tiny chance that they might put ajinomoto in the salt they use. I would say there's only about a 1 in 100 chance of that though, so if you're feelin lucky eat grilled fish. Tofu is safe. I didn't really understand if you can eat soy sauce or not, but if you can, soba should be OK at an upscale hand made (teuchi) soba place, as they all make soup from natural ingredients.

              Regarding pickles, anything store bought probably has MSG added to it, like I said, and most restaurants that aren't kaiseki type places don't make their own pickles. Artificial color is a dead giveaway. Store bought kim chi often has MSG in it too.

              If I were you, assuming you don't speak Japanese, I would have someone write a note that says you are severely allergic to MSG, that it could kill you, that you can't eat fake dashi, etc., and show that to the servers, or better yet the chef (sit at the counter) in restaurants. Japanese people are very nice and they will not ignore you. Just don't do it at a really busy hole in the wall during their rush. Thousands of the 200,000+ restaurants in Tokyo have chefs who would never use any processed ingredients and they are proud of it. Although there's a lot of MSG in Japan, there are infinitely more restaurants there that make everything from scratch than there are in America. It seems like such a waste to not eat something in any restaurant because you fear what a fraction of them are doing. Above $25 for a lunch or diner set, I would guess that half of restaurants make miso soup from scratch, so why deprive yourself if you can eat it? With so many restaurants in Tokyo owned by the chefs behind the counter, all you have to do is find a few nice places and you can eat whatever you want every day. Good luck!

              1. re: brandon g

                Thanks for your time brandon, i've got a few ideas going and i think i'll be fine.

                just gonna stick to fresh fresh food like i do in other places... i'll have a card i carry around and hopefully i can stay away from sauces and soups... msg might be in all the processed foods here, but it seems like people are not using it to cook anymore, except in the fast food type establishments so that is cool

                Incidentally, I'm really quite disturbed at people like this Scharn yahoo (reply above). Why do people who have no experience with a matter want to constantly shout down the people that do have that experience? Crazy world, crazy people

                1. re: bonemarrow

                  Seriously, no offense intended. It's just that MSG allergy have never been shown in a scientific study. How much it must suck to hear "Nah, that's imaginary." when you are actually afflicted by it for whatever reason, I can only assume.

                  So pls, no offense & have fun in Japan.

                  Cheers!

                  1. re: Scharn

                    Like Scharn, I tend to think the scientific community is on to something when they can't put a link between MSG and a number of symptoms. However, no one is saying that people aren't reacting to *something*. What's crazy is that people who suffer from these symptoms are content enough with blaming MSG, when all the science disproves that. This topic has been discussed to death on these boards.

                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/570029
                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/616601
                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/467547
                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/583714

                    1. re: E Eto

                      Thanks for that Eric, I figured it must have been discussed here before.

                      >For the record, "natural" msg doesn't do a thing to me. Case closed

                      That could be a clue right there - if mushrooms, Parmesan, tomatoes, miso soup etc. don't have any effect, then maybe MSG isn't the culprit. "Natural" MSG and Ajinomoto are the same chemical.

                      >i'll have a card i carry around

                      That's also been discussed here on this board (about people with peanut allergies I believe), and most people thought it wasn't very useful in that case - some random part-time waiter at a busy restaurant isn't going to go into the kitchen to quiz the cooks on every single ingredient during a busy shift, and there's just not the same mindset in restaurants in Japan that would accommodate that sort of request. A restaurant at an international hotel might be different.

                      >it seems like people are not using it to cook anymore

                      Has someone said that? I'm not aware of any changes in cooking habits in restaurant kitchens in Japan regarding MSG - lots of places have always used it and continue to use it.

                      On a more constructive note, your ideas to avoid processed foods and cheap restaurants are probably the best bet at avoiding problems. And you may be comfortable at a place like Eat More Greens in Azabu-Juban that labels every single dish wrt MSG, wheat gluten, etc.

                      1. re: Robb S

                        I just wanted to reply again to this thread in case anyone finds it in the search function :)

                        Im back from Japan, and i had absolutely no problems whatsoever! HOO-RAY!

                        My strategy?

                        I carried a notecard in my wallet. It said on one side: "I am severely allergic to MSG, and if I eat it i will have to go to the hospital."
                        The other side was a question: "does this food have MSG in it"

                        Anyway, the Japanese in Tokyo are very cognizant about the potential dangers of MSG, and i found that most people were very helpful in helping me determine which foods i could eat and which i couldn't.

                        A couple of notes:

                        I ate mostly fresh food, and lots of sashimi.

                        I was turned away at 90% of restaurants, because they would indicate that virtually everything on the menu included Ajinomoto (MSG).

                        At one restaurant, I went for lunch and all was good (they even made me a soup from scratch w/o MSG!). I returned for dinner with my partner, and while at lunch everything was fair game (limited menu), at dinner it was quite the opposite.
                        We ended up eating sashimi mostly, and we ordered a Bluefin Tuna on the bone, that was slow roasted. They told me it had MSG in it (as everything on the menu did that night) but my gf loved it, and i tried exactly three bites (it was unbelievably delecious!)... within minutes i could feel that crap coursing through my vascular system. But it was little enough of a portion that it wasn't so bad.

                        So in the end, for those similar to me: Stick to fresh food. No convience store food. No sauces. Carry a note card everywhere.

                        For the haters out there, i can only hope that your limited minds will one day evolve to the point you are able to realize that science is hardly infallible (by definition), and that we have yet to know all there is to know.
                        This bunk about this sensitivity not being MSG.... that's an insult i am sure. Good luck to you, i hope you will try to be less judgmental in the future.

                        Thanks for the help everyone else :)

                        1. re: bonemarrow

                          I'd like to drop in a bit of information I learned a few years ago on a trip to France from a friend with food allergies, a condition I thankfully do not share. I did witness how helpful allergy cards were, however. If you will search the net, you can find a number of companies selling allergy cards in a variety of languages. Naturally, you chowhounds benefit from how well informed your peers are, but these cards come written in the appropriate language for the country you are visiting and list various names the restaurants might recognize the item by. My friend found them extremely helpful, as her food allergies, like many, pertain to items often used in other items. The cards name off some of the common items containing the problem food. The cards come in packets in most cases so that you may give them to the server to give to the cook. I believe she obtained her pack at the suggestion of her pharmacist, and she said they were very inexpensive.