Reconsidering MSG

goya_sofrito_recaito_msgby Tom Lee

I’ve been on kind of a taco kick recently, and it’s been enabled in large part by the two products pictured to the right. Take some Goya sofrito or recaito, add it to a pot with some meat, water and whatever else you care to throw in (bay leaves? lemon juice?) and then cook the hell out of it. Slap the result into a toasted corn tortilla, maybe add a slice of avocado, and you’ll have a simple, pleasing dinner. I did this last night with some pork ribs, and the results were almost suspiciously delicious.

So I was feeling pretty positively about these Goya products. I think I’ll probably buy them again. Sadly, that meant I had to check the ingredient labels. I didn’t want to find bad news, but I did.

Monosodium glutamate! The dreaded MSG. Scourge of reputable Chinese restaurants, source of countless anecdotal migraine accounts. I headed to Wikipedia, where the MSG article disappointed, but the glutamic acid article delivered a link to a fascinating Guardian piece. Much of it you may already know: the bit about Japanese seaweed, and umami, and its ubiquity in Asian cooking since the early days of the twentieth century.

But until reading that article I didn’t quite understand MSG’s position in the larger ingredient universe. It turns out that MSG is best thought of as a source of glutamate. Glutamate is to umami as sugar is to sweetness. Extending the analogy, MSG is probably best compared to table sugar or corn syrup: a relatively character-free refined product that is used to crank up one particular dimension of a food’s flavor profile. There are other, more nuanced sources of umami, though — in the same way that honey or molasses can add sweetness while contributing their own subtleties, there are many sources of glutamate that aren’t quite as bare-bones as MSG. But, as with the constellation of sweeteners, these sources of glutamate are all primarily employed to pump up umami, and it’s probably a mistake to spend too much time debating the virtues of one versus another: they all dump glutamate into your system, leading to the spiked levels of the amino acid that some think have an excitotoxic effect on neurons outside the blood/brain barrier.  As do other, more favorably-viewed ingredients: parmesan cheese and soy sauce are both chock full of glutamate, and so are many other delicious things.

I didn’t realize how ubiquitous these glutamate sources are. The food industry has elected to deal with the public’s stated aversion to and observed affection for MSG by inventing synonyms for it. It turns out that glutamate is produced pretty much whenever proteins are distressed. Protein’s in a lot of things, and consequently there are a lot of ways to put a name to glutamate:

  • monopotassium glutamate
  • glutavene
  • glutacyl
  • glutamic acid
  • autolyzed yeast extract
  • calcium caseinate
  • sodium caseinate
  • E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates)

I know I’ve run into the caseinates before. Autolyzed yeast extract, too. The Guardian article also has a list of flavorings that, while not quite as brazen, are still frequently added to ingredient lists as cover for glutamate — these are the ingredients that I analogized to molasses a few paragraphs ago:

  • natural flavours or seasonings
  • natural beef or chicken flavouring
  • hydrolyzed milk or plant protein
  • textured protein
  • seasonings
  • soy sauce
  • bouillon
  • broth
  • spices

My reaction to all this is basically to throw up my hands. The discussion pages on wikipedia are contentious, no doubt, but scientific testing seems to indicate that MSG doesn’t have much of an effect on people — and has almost no reliably observable effect when consumed with food. Besides, it’s looks like the autism people have embraced anti-MSG sloganeering, and these days there’s no better way to lend scientific disrepute to a theory about an environmental hazard.

I’m not tremendously thrilled to be eating as much MSG as I no doubt am — I suffer from almost-certainly-psychosomatic MSG-induced lightheadedness, too. But that Goya stuff is so tasty that I’m not sure I have much of a choice.

2 responses to “Reconsidering MSG

  1. Sofrito is easy to make, and I imagine it freezes well if you want to keep it that long. Just throw tomatoes, peppers (green or red), onion, garlic and a bunch of cilantro in a food processor or blender and there you go. With no MSG.

  2. Brian- there’s glutamate in tomatoes. Also, don’t put onions in a food processor. They will lose all their water, and thus lose all integrity. You need the integrity in the slow cooking process (you also forgot to mention that it should be cooked…). I like the Italian soffrito myself. Just fennel, red onion, celery, and carrots. Make a big batch and freeze it (post cooking…don’t freeze uncooked vegetables). It’s what makes the vegetable dishes at Craft so amazing.

    Tom – someone writing on a food blog should have known that about MSG a long time ago. It’s delicious, naturally occurring (though of course it can be made chemically), and its adverse effects on health are much overblown, just like salt’s. The end of salt and MSG is the end of flavor and good cooking. Like that article says, “why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” Because Americans love to blame bogeymen instead of just not overeating.

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