Locally known as vetsin—derived from the Hokkien Chinese words for “flavor essence,” monosodium glutamate or MSG has been a staple of Asian cooking since its widespread commercial sale in the 20th century, and has become a part of modern convenience cuisine as a flavor booster for items like instant or canned soup.
But there are plenty of restaurants that declare their dishes are MSG-free, and chefs who proclaim that their food is only enhanced by natural ingredients. But for every person against the use of the food enhancer, there’s another who champions it wholeheartedly.
Eating with the enemy?
While it has its uses, such as making bland diets more appealing to children, the elderly and the sick, it must be said that the judicious use of MSG is still important.
The Nutrition Research and Development Division of the Department of Science and Technology conducted a study on 67 healthy seniors from a subdivision in Metro Manila. It reported increased food intake with MSG compared to just seasoning with salt, with no adverse hypertensive effect. Nevertheless, their recommendation still advises the moderate use of flavor enhancers for the elderly. Another study, by Nemencio Nicodemus, M.D. of UP-PGH, noted how monosodium glutamate can encourage diabetics to consume food items with a low glycemic index, but points out that increasing the recommended amount of MSG in a dish may actually lead to decreased palatability—hence the necessity of a light hand when dispensing the seasoning.
“I agree [with the studies, but] of course, moderate intake is a must,” says nutritionist and dietician Felicidad Velandria. According to her, MSG is 30 percent sodium and 70 percent chloride, while table salt is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride.
Of mice and MSG
Studies have also been conducted on guanylate, a substance much like glutamate, and its effects on the digestive system. Beyond tongue perception, humans also detect guanylate as it is absorbed via the stomach or intestines. In a paper published recently in The Journal of Neuroscience, genetically-mutated mice deprived of the ability to taste umami, the fifth taste that food enhancers add, still gravitated to water flavored with MSG compared with plain water—showing a post-ingestive appreciation for the protein that human beings also have.
Many studies have debunked MSG’s alleged harmful properties by attributing allergies, headaches or other symptoms to other factors involved in eating food items seasoned with it. But it is interesting to note that a report commissioned in 1995 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and performed by the Federation of Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) found no proof to link the adverse claims of anti-MSG proponents—but acknowledged reports that asthmatics may be more sensitive to MSG than the general population. The FASEB study also claimed the possibility of one percent of the test population exhibiting symptoms of MSG Symptom Complex, popularly known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, after they were fed an oral dose of three grams in the absence of food. Other studies have pointed out a link between MSG sensitivity and vitamin B6 deficiency.
Whether one is truly deficient in vitamin B6, asthmatic, or just a hypochondriac—“better safe than sorry” seems to be the approach in choosing food items without MSG.