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Nov 8, 2013 12:49 PM

Umami and MSG: what's in a name?

I've avoided MSG after an unfortunate experience at a Chinese buffet many years back, but honestly I have no idea what caused my reaction. But after making a batch of mushroom ketchup this week I'd have to say I'm an umami fan overall.

I'd say the points made at the end are valid: MSG is likely the difference between eating something balanced and regulated, and mainlining it. Just as with sugar, how you consume it could well make the difference. But I dunno.

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  1. Reminds me of the debate over HFC and '"natural" sugars.
    Sugar is sugar.
    Glutamate is umami.

    Perhaps it's the high levels of sodium in some Asian foods that causes the reaction some people claim to feel?

    7 Replies
    1. re: hal2010

      It's been speculated that the sodium causes the glutamate (not only an amino acid, but an important neurotransmitter) to be taken up too quickly in the brain. I myself blame the "MSG reaction" on too much salt. I have no problem with MSG, but I have had reactions similar to the MSG one, consistently with foods from certain places, that I believe were simply due to being overly salted, rather than MSG, or MSG alone.

      1. re: EricMM

        The glutamate you eat and the glutamate in your brain are two vastly different substances that unfortunately share a common part of their name. The glutamate you eat is chemically changed by the digestive process and will never reach your brain. The glutamate neurotransmitter in your brain is made by your body through a complicated chemical process which never uses glutamate you eat.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          Someone eats a tablespoon of msg, straight.
          They faint dead away.
          Was that the sodium?

          1. re: Chowrin

            Quite possibly sodium would indeed be to blame. MSG has less sodium than pure salt, but a tablespoon of it, straight, is going to contain a pretty huge dose of the stuff. It is, after all, monoSODIUM glutamate.

            1. re: Chowrin

              Other Chowhounders have done much the same and remained happily vertical. Don't have an answer for you.

            2. re: maria lorraine

              Glutamate (the ionized form of glutamic acid) in and of itself is an amino acid. Its found in most of the proteins we eat. The digestive process alters the proteins, by hydrolysing them into amino acids, which can be absorbed into the blood and delivered to cells. Once there, they can be altered chemically or recombined into new proteins as needed. I do not know the biochemical pathway for the glutamate used in the nervous system, whether it arrives in the cells as glutamate, or is synthesized from other amino acids. Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Aside from that sodium addition, AFAIK the glutamate part is the same, as all organisms use the L (levo) form of amino acids. If it's in the D (dextro) form, it's certainly different from what is in our nervous systems.

              1. re: EricMM

                Interesting, useful MSG trivia:

                1. The L isomer (the effective part) makes up a majority of natural glutamate in foods. An authoritative organic-chem print reference I checked (Merck Index) indicates that manufactured MSG (usually made by fermentation itself) has essentially pure L-isomer. Wikipedia's "glutamic acid" page, which has good specific references, has related isomer details. (When this subject came up in an earlier thread, someone assumed commercial MSG was racemic.)

                2. That WP page has a reference table of glutamate concentration found in many foods:

                3. Current related WP pages (evolving documents!) mention the remarkable point that MSG can actually reduce sodium level when seasoning foods. Itself containing a third the sodium of an equal weight of table salt, MSG enhances taste perception of salt; I gather that for similar taste results, net sodium can be reduced. (Note that for decades, salt-free and low-salt seasoning mixtures, based on yeast or yeast extracts, have been niche US supermarket products, implicitly exploiting this effect.)

                4. MSG's _acute_ toxicity is about five times lower than table salt's (i.e. extreme overdose levels high enough to cause mortality, LD50 -- pretty high anyway for salt --are much higher for MSG). [Merck Index]

        2. It's been pointed out elsewhere that real food allergies to ingredients common in Chinese cooking (such as fermented bean condiments) aren't rare, and have sometimes been obscured by the general public's insistent self-diagnoses of "MSG sensitivity."

          There are two fundamental, logical problems with the popular notions that have dogged that substance for a few decades:

          1. Their basis was always wrong. The anxiety over MSG derived from a 1968 medical letter speculating -- speculating! -- about a connection of MSG to complaints some Americans expressed after eating Chinese food. Pop culture caught up to that part of the story, but not the more important sequel -- the real science that discredited the speculation. Nutshell summary by Myhrvold et al. in the monumental 2011 "Modernist Cuisine:"

          "extensive research has yet to identify a test subject who can reliably distinguish food with or without MSG in a double-blind study ... even for studies that have focused exclusively on people who claim to have MSG sensitivity. Alas, the bottom line is that science has found no health effects due to MSG consumption at the levels in which it is present in food."

          2. Glutamates, along with guanylates and inosinates, are common flavor-enhancing components occurring naturally in foods, and are part of our ancestral diet. Pure MSG added to food does entail an extra sodium dose, but the l-glutamic acid (l-glutamate ion) that dissociates from the sodium in digestive juices (each ion to its separate metabolic fate) also occurs naturally, and sometimes in similar concentrations, in everyday foods.

          Scupulous Chinese restaurants avoid commercial MSG (a cheap substitute for natural flavor enhancers), but they cannot accurately claim their food is MSG-free, because of so many natural sources of sodium and l-glutamate (amounting to the same thing, once inside you) in cooking. Some of which, like soy sauce and fermented bean pastes, came into use precisely because they concentrate flavor-enhancing substances naturally!

          A person truly "sensitive" to glutamate would display the same symptoms on ingesting glutamate unknowingly, in natural form from any number of foods including peas, fermented products such as cheese, meats, fish sauces, mushrooms. The clinical history, as summarized above by Myhrvold, is that they don't do so, but it doesn't stop some people from defending, or conjuring online sources that appear to them to support, the self-diagnoses or the assumptions behind them.

          26 Replies
          1. re: eatzalot

            Thank you forth is information. It drives me crazy when people say they have an intolerance to msg but their diet consists primarily of processed foods. Hello, why do you think barbq chips, chicken stock, salad dressings etc...taste so good?

            1. re: DowntownJosie

              Be it said, most people who pay attention to food, and also know about MSG's real history, still have no use for the stuff.

              It's a cheap simplistic flavor enhancer that helps prop up processed foods (along with salt, sugar, and fat).

              More complex flavor enhancers (like yeast extracts, misos, soy sauces, bean pastes, fish sauces, mushrooms, and dried tomatoes) contribute much more flavor, and sometimes also valuable nutrients -- even when own their natural flavor-enhancing effect derives from glutamates or related substances.

              1. re: eatzalot

                I guess I was trying to say that the people I know in my life who have the worst diets are also the ones who complain the most about msg. I control it because I cook and make most things from scratch but I love umami flavours so use soy, tomato paste, miso etc...alot.

                1. re: DowntownJosie

                  I guess things like MSG serve a role as secular demons (along with many other nutrition notions that endure even though completely discredited by real-world testing, or even by pre-existing understanding). They serve as lightning rods for attention, conferring a comforting sense that people understand their troubles when learning the actual cause is harder, or unwelcome.

              2. re: DowntownJosie

                Sorry to hear about your insanity over MSG. For me, I have learned to avoid ALL food that is manufactured using MSG, yeast, yeast extracts, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, etc. It has eliminated from my diet, the exact food items you listed above, with little exception. And you know what ? I am symptom-free when I stick to that diet restriction. If I don't, I find my heart either palpitating for hours, or going into full blown atrial fibrillation. The cause and effect for me, is undeniable. Reading opposing views on this website, does nothing to change my mind. I have my proof that I have suffered through. I do acknowledge, that I am the exception, than the rule in MSG-related illnesses. That said, why is it so hard for someone to consider that in fact, there may be people whose bodies don't tolerate MSG. In humans, anything is possible.

                1. re: topsail33

                  To clarify my own comments (as seems endlessly necessary, and even then, uncertain of effect), topsail33 has not in fact seen any comment from me "opposing" a statement like "I have learned to avoid ALL food that is manufactured using MSG, yeast, yeast extracts, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, etc. [and] am symptom-free when I stick to that diet restriction."

                  Quite the opposite: I know people in similar situations, have seen many other credible reports, and am all in favor of topsail33 or anyone else following dietary regimens that give results!

                  The actual distinction that some of us are trying to cleave on Chowhound comes up when people make the intuitive jump from finding that certain foods affect their health, to concluding that the _specific_ culprit is MSG. Those _specific_ claims have been, exhaustively, clinically tested, and found invariably wrong, as I mentioned here earlier. Moreover there are basic biochemical reasons, which anyone can learn but few evidently do, why MSG _per se_ is the least likely culprit. However, it IS a buzzword everyone hears, and it got early notoriety (based on now-discredited speculative "science"), so it fills a useful role as a lightning rod. The harm this can do is that, as just one of hundreds of biochemicals occuring even naturally in EACH of the foods someone identifies as problematic, it can distract the self-diagnoser from the root cause -- often a legume or grain allergy. Dietary avoidance can eliminate symptoms, but only careful clinical testing reliably isolates the root cause.

                  Many people, even "foodies," perceive MSG as mainly a food additive, and have no perception of how widespread it is (as sodium and glutamic acid, which MSG itself becomes once ingested) in completely natural diets, or that glutamic acid is a natural component of their own living cells too. Or that commercial MSG and other umami products are derived from fermented grain. Or that Folic acid (an essential nutrient) is derived from glutamic acid. Etc etc.

                  1. re: eatzalot

                    I was (or thought I was) responding to Josie's post about being driven crazy by people who eat garbage and complain about it the most.

                  2. re: topsail33

                    How do you react to natural sources of glutamate, like seaweed, anchovy, etc, rather than processed foods with MSG?

                    1. re: EricMM

                      Those specific ingredients you mention, I have not had the occasion to eat. I do eat pizza made with yeast. I do eat tomato products. And I feel fine eating what I eat. But I do spend an inordinate amount of time at the grocery store, reading labels, searching for MSG and it's many-varied forms, in hopes of avoiding ingesting too much glutamate at once. If there is doubt, I don't buy the food. I am very careful about ordering from a menu; I almost always avoid soups I don't make myself, I don't order any marinated entrees, nor batter-fried foods, and all of that work pays off for me.

                2. re: eatzalot

                  Also, Chinese food tends to use some weird proteins, which can have unfortunate g.i. affects -- the first ten or so times you consume them.

                  This is why, in case you're wondering, Chinese often won't feed Americans offal. We haven't become accustomed to some of the proteins.

                  1. re: Chowrin

                    I'd say it's a bit of a stretch to say that's why Chinese restaurants are reluctant to serve offal and other "weird proteins" to Americans. More likely it's because they have too often experienced (or have heard many stories of the experience of others in the Chinese restaurant community) that Americans who such dishes to "experiment" can't handle it and send the dishes back, at a loss to the restaurant. After that happens a few times any restaurant owner would be reluctant.

                    1. re: Chowrin

                      My experience in talking to many Chinese restaurateurs about this point is along lines johnb said.

                      Essentially, they are serving their perceived market. A very small fraction of the general US public is adventurous enough to try unfamiliar dishes with "pig intestine" in their names (though many more eat sausages enclosed in whay the savvy US meat industry euphemizes as "casings"). That small adventurous fraction also tends not to grasp how small a minority it is; to resent when just part of a menu is translated into English; and to conjure, as always, its own pat explanations for this situation. For their part, some Chinese restaurateurs are less aware than they might be about the existence of more adventurous American diners, so remain complacent about how much of the menu to translate.

                      (I saw data, can't remember where, to the effect that almost all of the ordering of Chinese restaurant food even in a US region like mine, with large Chinese communities and numerous diverse Chinese restaurants compared to the rest of the US, is limited to something like 20 familiar dishes. Perusing crowd-sourced restaurant "review" sites greatly supports that.)

                      1. re: eatzalot

                        I'd lay money that we have more than 20 dishes on the "Chinese Menu" around here.
                        (of course, my knowledge of chinese cooking is not the greatest...)

                        1. re: Chowrin

                          Oh, we have many diverse Chinese restaurants with extensive menus in the SF area (a tradition with roots soon after the Gold Rush 160 years ago), and some of them translate everything into English.

                          What stands out on reading sources like Yelp is that the general public gravitates to something like 10 or 20 familiar standards over and again. Even in restaurants with particular regional specialties (Shanghai, Dongbei, Macao, Sichuan, etc.), offering unusual dishes, often not made with exotic or threatening ingredients, and that prove very popular with non-Chinese diners IF they ever try them. It is a subtheme occasionally in discussions on the SF board.

                          Once when checking all the Yelp postings on a particular Chinese restaurant known for, and advertising on its menu, attractive regional dishes, I found that literally only one in every hundred "reviews" showed awareness of the restaurant's regional focus -- an omission that would be fatal and discrediting if a professional restaurant journalist wrote a review. The rest praised the mu shu, pot stickers, "Chinese" chicken salad, etc., which every single Chinese restaurant in the region also offers. For that reason.

                        2. re: eatzalot

                          What you say about familiar dishes is no doubt true, but it is to be fully expected and has nothing to do with Chinese food or the patrons of Chinese restaurants. It is just one more of the endless examples of the 80-20 rule, i.e. the Pareto Principle, at work. The rule states that in any diverse group of things, roughly 20% of the items will account for roughly 80% of the activity, and of course the other 80% will account for only 20%. There are mathematical/statistical proofs of this proposition. It shows up everywhere -- to cite a homely example, if a typical person has a typical number of, say, shirts, or shoes, in his rotation, then probably 20% of them account for about 80% of that persons wearing time. 20% of your customers account for 80% of your revenue. 20% of drivers account for 80% of miles driven. And so on. Whenever you hear of some newspaper writer marveling at how only a few people account for most of something, for example the distribution of income in society, remember it's not odd at all; it's normal and to be expected.

                          1. re: johnb

                            We actually had a similar conversation on the regional board. What's notable here -- in the real-world restaurant example I summarized -- is that it's not an 80/20 situation, but actually, quantitatively, 99/1. And certain choice or game-theory dynamics are particular to restaurants. For example, people ordering what is familiar, even when (and situations occur that demonstrate this -- topic for a separate thread perhaps) the restaurant has, or even is known for, other specialties that the very same customers do, literally, enjoy even more, if ever they try them. (Probably all of us who eat out have been such customers from time to time, I know I have.)

                            I raised the point, anyway, to amplify your comment on Nov. 9 about people being unadventurous in Chinese restaurants, a syndrome very familiar to most Chinese restaurateurs I speak to.

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              I do this without meaning to. When I'm trying a new Mexican place, for instance, I'll order the tacos al pastor. I know how good they can be and if I like what I get I'll come back--and maybe try something else next trip. If I don't like them, if the meat is gristly or there is no seasoning or heat, I probably won't come back at all.

                              So if you wrote down what I eat at Mexican places overall, it's al pastor probably 80/20. If you wrote down what I ate at a favorite place, it would be more broad a showing.

                              (See also: cannelloni, onion rings, sesame chicken--different places, different gauges.)

                              ETA I do not understand getting "the usual". If I like your place I want to try as much as I can.

                              1. re: ennuisans

                                Again it's a large topic in its own right. But I'm interested in restaurant ordering habits, after observing them for 40 or so years.

                                For a given diner, even many diners, a good restaurant will have certain things on its menu that really sing. The issue is whether the diners ever try those dishes. The habit of ordering the same thing at each new restaurant of a genre is understandable, but can be fatal, because it doesn't take into account the restaurant's actual strengths, which may be outside that dish. That's where reliable, comprehensive "review" advice can be valuable. Alas: many reviews, including on this web site, reflect tiny experience of the menu, therefore amount to the blind earnestly leading the blind. Talking to the restaurant can also be valuable.

                                Excellent point on comfort foods, John. Now if more gringos would just TRY other Thai rice-noodle specialties (pad see-iew, rad nar, pad kee mow) they might find that they like those even more, as comfort foods.

                              2. re: eatzalot

                                Yes, I agree. I wonder, in fact, if for many Chinese restaurant customers, sometimes even we who like to try everything, certain Chinese dishes have entered the realm of comfort food. Unlike our indigenous comfort foods such as meat loaf and mac 'n' cheese, they would represent a curious blend of "exotic" and familiar, all wrapped up on a single plate, which could help account for their popularity. Moo shu pork, General Tsao's chicken, and so on, might be looked upon as having this dual quality. To some, a way to "walk on the wild side" in perfect safety and familiarity.

                                Pad thai may be another Asian example.

                        3. re: eatzalot

                          I know that many people may have misconceptions on what their food sensitivity is, but after years of "process of elimination", I have concluded that MSG is a migraine trigger for me. I wish it wasn't, but I have had reactions to the following foods:

                          certain chinese food
                          processed soups, gravies, etc.
                          flavored chips and snacks
                          some mushrooms
                          some aged cheeses

                          Within 15-20 minutes of eating any of those, I feel flush and uncomfortable, with a headache to follow. The only common ingredient in all of those was MSG. So while there may studies debunking the allergy, there truly are people out there who have a sensitivity to it.

                          1. re: lawgirl3278

                            Certainly sympathize with your complaint. I've been dealing with various food sensitivities my whole life.

                            Yet if "there truly are people out there who have a sensitivity to [glutamates]," then they won't just be personally convinced, but also will demonstrate it when tested "blind," which, per above, has not been the reality so far (so they will make some medical history too). And they'll show it with many other foods, since the combination of sodium and glutamate ions, in relevant concentrations, is pervasive in dietary sources that many people don't think of. Probably more important than all that, the popular self-diagnosis of MSG as an explanation for symptoms_has_ been seen to divert people from finding and addressing the real cause.

                            Yet I regularly encounter people insistently certain that they've self-diagnosed MSG sensitivity. Reality will tell, and personal conviction isn't the measure of reality, but vice versa, however much we all, at times, would wish it otherwise.

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              I don't think its just a coincidence so many people have drawn correlations between their allergic episodes and msg intake.

                              There are lots of allergens/ intolerances which can be deduced by food journal and elimination tests. Sometimes self-diagnosis is off, but sometimes its on the dot.

                            2. re: lawgirl3278

                              I agree, I notice I have a flush/heart palpitation/migraine reaction after eating heavy msg.

                              High amounts of synthetic MSG is the only common ingredient in all of these reactions.

                              1. re: worldtravelerr

                                Nope. Not the only ingredient. Read the read of the thread, or read up on tyramines. You're blaming the wrong thing.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  I think I know what I eat better than anyone else.

                                  Never had a reaction eating any typical "tyramine-rich" foods on their own. Eat plenty of them, fermented etc.

                                  The only common denominator of MY few allergic incidents are, surprise, surprise, when artificial MSG was found to be added. I eat the same foods w/o MSG with no problem like chicken pho soup.

                                  Non-MSG Pho: No problem
                                  MSG-added Pho: Numerous immediate symptoms

                                  Trust me. I'm not allergic to chicken, water, or rice noodle.

                                  1. re: worldtravelerr

                                    Please see a doctor; those immediate symptoms may grow worse and close your throat one day. Self-diagnosis is often wrong.

                          2. in my science of gastronmy course we learned umani comes from the aminoacid ...that most foods contain some amount of glutamate. Protein foods, such as meat, fish, cheese, milk and some vegetables are especially good sources of we know Japanese cooking is not known for its dairy... but its early umani source came from the seaweed added to dishes... people that feel they have "problems"with MSG are more likely havinga chemical senistivity nitrates or some othe preservitive.