To MSG or not to MSG?

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas -

A flushed face, palpitations, dizziness, headaches and a host of other peculiar sensations are some of the symptoms people claim to experience after feasting on Chinese food. The unexplainable phenomenon has  picked up a name — Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or CRS. I thought I felt these symptoms, while a good friend of mine would specifically ask the chef to omit MSG in the dish she orders at our favorite Chinese restaurant.

Yet, while there is much anecdotal evidence to support the theory that Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is the culprit behind CRS, since chefs often use MSG to season Chinese food, there are no clear scientific studies which prove that MSG is in fact to blame. My son Andres, a food technology major from the University of the Philippines, told me, and I could not believe my ears then, that MSG is not harmful to one’s health.

A few years ago, Professors Leonid Tarasoff and Michael Kelly of the University of Western Sydney completed a double-blind study on the effects of high doses of MSG in food. According to Tarasoff, the results show that MSG may be a scapegoat. He suspects that the real villains of Chinese restaurant syndrome are allergenic compounds found in fermented ingredients common to Chinese cooking such as soy sauce, black beans and shrimp paste.

Ok. Granted that allergens and not MSG may be the cause of CRS, does MSG or glutamate deserve the bad reputation it has as a food seasoning?  Many restaurants, snack foods, soups and sauces, among other things, flaunt “MSG-Free” labels like a badge of honor. Should consumers really be wary and discriminating towards this three letter food additive? While I am not presuming to end the debate on MSG safety through this column, I would like to share revealing information I have come across in the course of reading up on the subject.

In the span of 100 years since it was first introduced in the market, MSG has been safely used worldwide, and is considered the most thoroughly tested food ingredient. With hundreds of scientific studies confirming its harmless and effective use, MSG’s safety has been repeatedly affirmed by international regulatory and scientific agencies. In 1959, the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) designated it as Generally Recognized As Safe or GRAS, placing MSG in the ranks of sugar, baking powder and vinegar.

In addition, the Glutamate Association of the Philippines has cited studies by internationally-recognized institutions, which have nullified or debunked the accusations against MSG. In 1987 for example, the United Nations World Health Organization’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), concluded in its evaluation of MSG, that the substance does not pose any hazard to health. In fact, JECFA assigned an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) to MSG of “not specified” (no numerical limitation), which is the committee’s most favorable classification for food additives. The American Medical Association and the European Commission’s (EC) Scientific Committee for Food have likewise declared that glutamate is safe.

In fact, glutamate is an amino acid so vital to our functioning, particularly the digestive process, that our bodies produce 50 grams of it a day.  Studies reveal that the human body does not distinguish any difference between natural glutamate or added glutamate (MSG). We actually synthesize and digest both natural glutamate and MSG in the same way, and it is organically present in most of the food we eat everyday ‑ cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, fish, beef and chicken. 

Since glutamate is the source of the unique, savory taste — Umami (the fifth basic taste) — it enhances the natural flavor of many foods. Both natural glutamate and MSG stimulate the release of essential digestive juices, and serve as fuel for efficient metabolism. Adding it to everyday cooking facilitates the satisfying and efficient delivery of essential nutrients in every meal.

Probably one of the most surprising discoveries I read about this amino acid, is that breast milk contains large amounts of glutamate (about 10 times more than the levels present in cow’s milk). Its presence (and Umami taste) may influence the acceptability of mothers’ milk to nursing infants.  Mother’s milk, a bowl of chicken tinola, or a bag of potato chips may actually have more in common than you think.

To broaden the public’s understanding and constantly ensure the safety of MSG, continuous research is undertaken to test individuals who believe they have reactions to MSG. Doctors and scientists alike find that most people, who believe they adversely respond to MSG, actually do not when evaluated in carefully controlled testing situations. If you believe you may react to a particular food or ingredient such as MSG, seek a medical opinion from an allergist. Do not rely on self-diagnosis. A controlled food challenge is the most accurate and reliable method to properly evaluate complaints of food sensitivity.

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Do  women  play a big role in such issues as fresh water and waste? Yes, a lot. How? The answers are being discussed at the International Symposium on Women, Water and Waste, which started yesterday and will end tomorrow, at the Century Park Hotel in Malate, Manila.

Views will be heard from experts from South Africa, Egypt, Canada, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Chile, Indonesia, Mongolia, and the Philippines.

Sponsor of this important meeting is Philippine Women’s University, in collaboration with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Laguna Lake Development Authority, the League of Cities of the Philippines, and other key partners from NGOs and GOs.

Dr. Amelou B. Reyes, symposium executive committee chair and PWU president, says the symposium aims to “call attention to the developments on the critical issues of freshwater and waste and the leadership roles women play in these sectors. . . (It) represents advocacy for environmental sustain-ability and the implementation of the UN Millennium Goal to promote gender equity and women empowerment.”

It’s not  too late to attend the symposium. You may call the secretariat, 5252888, 5268421 (loc.. 122/131) and telefax nos. 5242612 and 3392158.

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My email:[email protected]

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