Have you been told that MSG is bad, but you’re not sure why?
That was me until last year when I decided to get down to bottom of the whole MSG controversy. After researching and compiling, I sat down to write. That was a few months ago. It seems that life with three little kids and one on the way isn’t always conducive to writing. Go figure. Then (sarcastic hooray for me) last week I was put on bed rest.
Now you know what a nerd I really am.
(Not to mention you get a taste of my weird sense of humor since I thought this comic was pretty funny….)
Anyway, before we take a big bite of MSG to learn what it really is, what it does to our bodies, and how it hides in our foods, let’s take a peek at how it got here in the first place.
A Little History
Way back in 1908, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered MSG while trying to isolate what chemical was responsible for the taste enhancing effect of the kombu seaweed. The Japanese had been using kombu as a flavor-enhancer in recipes for thousands of years, but Mr. Ikeda noticed that the broth of kombu had a particular taste that was different form the normal sweet, salty, sour and bitter ones. This new “taste” he named “umami”.
To verify what was responsible for the umami taste, Professor Ikeda studied the taste properties of many glutamate salts such as calcium, potassium, ammonium, and magnesium glutamate. Among those salts he found that sodium glutamate was the most soluble and palatable, and it crystallized easily. Professor Ikeda named his new product monosodium glutamate and patented it as MSG. In 1909 Mr. Saburosuke Suzuki bought a joint share of Ikeda’s patent and started the commercial production of MSG as “Aji-no-moto”, which means “essence of taste” in Japanese (at least I’m told that’s what it means…). S. Suzuki & Co. (later renamed Ajinomoto Co.) was the first in the world to produce monosodium glutamate, and started what would become a million-dollar industry.
(Incidentally, not only is MSG Ajinomoto’s signature product, but they are also the world’s largest manufacturer of aspartame [NutraSweet and Aminosweet], a business which they acquired from Mansanto in 2000.)
While in Japan during World War II, American soldiers discovered that the food rations of their Japanese prisoners actually tasted good. Why? That’s right, they contained MSG. So, in 1948, after a US military investigation (haha), a meeting was held by the Armed Forces in conjunction with some of the largest food manufacturing companies in the US to discuss how they could be using MSG. A few years later, Ajinomoto opened sales offices in the US.
Ever since then, MSG and its sneaky little derivatives have been the most widely used flavor enhancers in the world. They are added to most processed foods in our country and are found in nearly all canned and frozen foods. Not only that, but the amount of MSG added to our foods has nearly doubled every decade since it was brought to the US in the 40’s.
Some Scientific Studies
In 1954, Japanese scientist T. Hayashi first observed the negative effects of glutamate. He reported that direct application of it to the central nervous system caused seizure activity. His report went unnoticed and throughout the 50’s, 60’s and into the 70’s, neuroscientists assumed that glutamate supplied energy to the brain. With this idea in mind, scientists in one clinical study fed large doses of MSG to mentally handicapped children to see if it their IQs would improve. After this experiment failed, two ophthalmologists, Lucas and Newhouse, decided, in 1957, to test MSG on infant mice. Their thought was to study an eye disease known as hereditary retinal dystrophy. Upon examining the animals eye tissues afterward, they discovered that the MSG had destroyed all of the visual receptor nerve cells in the inner layers of the retina. But the worst study came some 10 years later in 1969, when John W. Olney, MD, a neuroscientist from the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, repeated Lucas and Newhouse’s experiment. He found that not only was MSG toxic to the retina, but it was also toxic to the brain. When he examined the mice’s brains he discovered that specialized cells in the hypothalamus were destroyed after a single dose of MSG.
Even after this frightening discovery, MSG continued to be added to foods. Worried about the effects on infants and children, Dr. Olney took his findings to the FDA and encouraged them to remove MSG from baby food. They refused. Only after Dr. Olney testified before a Congressional committee did the FDA agree to take action. And that action? Instead of adding pure MSG, they added hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, which merely contain MSG. Even still this and other forms of MSG (caseinate, beef or chicken broth, and flavoring) are added to baby foods.
Not to pick on Similac, because Enfamil and Gerber are just as bad, but the ingredients might as well be: water, sugar, MSG, added synthetic vitamins to hopefully counteract everything else…
Exasperated Pause. . . .
Seeing as this post is over four paragraphs (which my husband says is the max length for comfortable reading [ha]), I’m going to break it up into three or four five different posts. I’ll put up all my sources at the end, if you’re interested. Be sure and come back later to learn more about MSG and the FDA. . . .
Want to know more about MSG?
Check out the rest of the series: