At home we’re using Sriracha rather than your standard Vietnamese chilli sauce. It goes well with rice, adds a kick to any noodle soup or broth and is a tasty spice accompaniment to almost every Vietnamese meal. But look at the label and there is a ‘terrifying’ reality. Sriracha, that Thai-made darling of so many palates around the world, comes replete with a dose of MSG.
So I ask my brother-in-law what he thinks. Monosodium glutamate is bad for you, right? He agrees. Called bot ngot or sweet powder in Vietnamese, it’s something that he’s trying to use less of when he cooks at home. But like me he’s not sure why it’s bad. He’s Vietnamese, and pays scant attention to the bad rap MSG gets overseas. Yet the MSG tale is one he’s also heard. So prevalent is the belief that this substance is bad for you that it has gone from your typical folklore-style old wives’ tale to becoming an unwritten law — avoid MSG.
But in Vietnam, avoiding MSG is impossible. One friend recounts how they went to a cooking class to cook pho. They spent the day going through the myriad of spices and other ingredients required to make that perfect bowl of goodness, and then at the end, they added MSG. The class’s reaction? Disappointment. Shock.
The truth is that if you eat Vietnamese food, or most Asian food, you’re likely to be ingesting a lot of MSG. So, being an ardent fan of street food and having yet to suffer from the heart palpitations or series of migraines that so many report in reaction to this substance, I have to ask two questions. What actually is MSG? And why is it deemed to be so harmful?
Something Called Umami
My first stop, despite its occasional inaccuracy, is Wikipedia. The sodium salt of glutamic acid, according to the online bible, “industrial food manufacturers market and use MSG as a flavour enhancer because it balances, blends and rounds the total perception of other tastes.”
First isolated as a new taste substance in 1908 by Tokyo Imperial University researcher, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, the taste was named umami. Different to the tastes we know as sweet, salty, sour and bitter — a fifth dimension so to speak — Ikeda realised the commercial potential of his discovery as a flavour enhancer. In 1909 he named this product monosodium glutamate and submitted a patent to produce MSG. The first commercial production of MSG commenced the same year and was given the brand name Aji-no-moto, or ‘essence of taste’.
The problem with MSG is twofold. First it’s found in almost all processed foods — canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. It’s everywhere, and its usage is often disguised by the use of other food additive terms such as autolysed yeast, calcium caseinate, gelatin, hydrolysed corn gluten, textured protein and yeast extract. This prevalence means that in the modern day food chain, unless you are living in the rural reaches of Papua New Guinea or the barren depths of Outer Mongolia, ingesting at least some MSG into your daily diet is unavoidable. So, if it is genuinely harmful, then avoiding it is nigh on impossible.
More important are the anecdotal reports that claim adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These include headaches, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, rapid, fluttering heartbeats, chest pain, nausea and weakness. There is even a suggestion that overuse of MSG may lead to Alzheimer’s.
However, despite extensive research, no link has been proven between these various reactions and the ingestion of MSG. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognised as safe”. This is echoed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) which cites “overwhelming evidence from a large number of scientific studies” to explicitly deny any link between MSG and “serious adverse reactions” or “long-lasting effects”, declaring MSG “safe for the general population”.
The FSANZ does, however, suggest that in less than 1 percent of the population, sensitive individuals may experience the ‘transient’ side effects mentioned above after eating a large amount of MSG in one meal. In response they encourage people who consider themselves sensitive to MSG to confirm this through appropriate clinical assessment.
The growing numbers of giant-sized food manufacturers have extensive lobbying power. There are some out there who suggest this may be the reason the anecdotal reports have never been confirmed — such is the importance of MSG to the food industry that true research has never been carried out. And if it has, its results have been kept quiet, quashed and not released to the public.
Such a theory also suggests that administrations the world over act in favour of corporate interests rather than the interests they are supposed to represent — everyday people like you or me. It also suggests a reason for using other names for MSG that disguise the prevalence of the additive in food.
Conversely, a 2008 article on junkfoodscience.blogspot.com points out another issue — food myths and how they go viral. A recent study of MSG usage by rural Chinese was pounced upon by the US-based Obesity Society to prove that constant use of MSG is linked with obesity. However, the link they made was spurious — they divided the BMIs of respondents into rigid categories of healthy and overweight, and relied on percentile increases of MSG consumption for correlational proof. News leads quickly moved from the correlational — “MSG use linked with obesity” — to the causal — “MSG use may lead to obesity” — and by merit of being published online became the source for yet another rumour: MSG makes you fat.
In the end, like many things, it comes down to a personal decision. For me, the issue with MSG is exactly what it represents. It’s a food additive that “balances, blends and rounds the total perception of other tastes”. It’s a cheat. It makes food taste good that would otherwise be ordinary. It’s the tomato ketchup of Asia.
Imagine eating a bowl of pho without MSG in it? How would it taste? How about that Sriracha that sits on my table at almost every mealtime? Would it be so addictive, so moreish?
Which is why I will still insist that at home we don’t use MSG — except of course for Sriracha. And if a restaurant proclaims that it doesn’t use MSG, then it will naturally have my support. As for street food, I once saw a woman spoon in a full tablespoon of MSG to my bowl of bun ngan. That was 10 years ago and I have never eaten the dish since.