Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Do Americans Still Think MSG Is Bad for You?

MSG Crystals
MSG Crystals

Why do so many Americans, even very well-educated ones, still believe that MSG is bad for our health? It is an urban myth that it causes allergic reactions. Many studies from around the world have proven that MSG is no more harmful to our health than plain salt, yet the urban myth in the US continues. In fact, in large quantities, salt is more harmful to our health than MSG is. When restaurants don’t use MSG, they just put more salt which is worse. I think it’s just because the name “monosodium glutamate” sounds too scary. If we called salt by its chemical name, I think the same thing would happen: “Would you like some sodium chloride on your French fries?”

Some people feel lethargic after eating Chinese food which lead to this myth called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. I believe this has to do with the heaviness of the food. I feel the same way whenever I eat rich, heavy, greasy food. Cheap food in general tends to be so, specially cheap Chinese, Indian, and deep-fried food. If you were to stuff yourself with rich French food loaded with butter, cream, and cheese, the same would probably happen but because French food is generally expensive, we don’t stuff ourselves with it. And, that leads to another argument that enhancing the flavors with MSG would be good for us because we would feel more satisfied with less calories.

The main reason why the urban myth of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” spread so fast and wide, I believe, is xenophobia. Chinese food was a perfect candidate for it. MSG is strongly associated with Chinese food but it was actually invented in Japan, and the Japanese people probably consume more MSG than the Chinese.

MSG first went into production in 1909 in Japan, and since then, the Japanese people have been using it in just about everything. It’s nearly impossible to avoid MSG in Japan, or even in Japanese grocery stores in the US. You pick up any food product randomly and look at the list of ingredients, you will find MSG. For over a century, the entire nation of Japan has been consuming MSG every day. But, as it is commonly known, the Japanese are significantly healthier and live longer than Americans. So, what is there to be concerned about? More than one generation of people have already consumed it all their lives. Cutting down on sodium consumption is a common health concern even in Japan, but I’ve never heard anyone talking about cutting down on MSG.

It is true that using MSG in everything you cook is a form of cheating, but the same is true for salt and sugar. When you eat fruit, say strawberries or a grapefruit, you would want it to be naturally sweet, and not have to add sugar to it artificially. The same is true for savory food. You want to enjoy the natural amount of salt that’s in the ingredients, and if you get high-quality ingredients full of natural flavors, you wouldn’t need to add salt. We tend to add salt to food when flavor is lacking. High-end restaurants don’t usually have salt on the table, and asking for more salt is considered an insult. In that sense, yes, adding MSG is a form of cheating; we should enjoy the naturally occurring MSG if possible. But why single out MSG as a form of cheating? If MSG is cheating, then chefs should not add any salt or sugar in any of their food either, but they all habitually do. So, it’s hypocritical to single out use of MSG as cheating.

- Umesh Shanmugam

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