MSG – Enhancing the Flavour of Intellectual Discourse

msg-of-social-gastronomyI have been known to get a little frustrated with the culture of misinformation in modern  society. There is a common attitude that if a lot of people believe something, it’s probably true. When someone tells me something like ‘everyone knows that’, there’s a quote from the perceptive Sir Terry Pratchett that springs to mind:

The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member, divided by the number of mobsters.

Sadly, I’m inclined to agree. People don’t seem to get more intelligent when they clamour together. As their minds collectively bend towards the same outcome they begin running with the pack, like lemmings leaping over the cliffs of free-thinking despair. This is a bit of a fatalistic view, perhaps. I wholly understand that this largely occurs due to a primitive cultural coding which tells us that there’s safety to be found in numbers. It is why people have difficulty empathizing with someone far removed from their cultural or ethnographic circle, but it’s also the same impetus that makes a person want to play cricket with their neighbours and have them all around for a backyard barbeque.

Have I told you guys about MSG?

The story behind MSG is one of my favourite examples of the ingrained propensity we all have for cultural misinformation. For those of you who don’t know, MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and it is commonly used as a cooking supplement to enhance a dish’s natural flavours. It is used most predominantly in Asian cooking and in the 60s it was linked to a health condition known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a loose collection of complaints symptomatic of allergic reaction or food poisoning. To this day, people still believe MSG to be bad for you.

So, what is MSG?

In the early 1900s, a biochemist named Dr. Ikeda, one of the leading researchers into taste neurosensory, identified a substance called glutamate. Glutamate was a naturally occurring chemical compound which was found in highest quantities in foods such as meat, tomatoes, cheese, seaweed and breast milk. Once he had identified this compound which made everything taste better, Dr. Ikeda used salt as a stabilising agent, or monosodium, and went on to found one of the largest monosodium glutamate manufacturers the world would ever see. MSG is little more than salt and glutamate, two highly common, naturally occurring foodstuffs.

msgSo, how did everyone get this idea into their heads that MSG is bad for you?

In the 60s, a gentleman named Dr. Ho Man Kwok published an article in a journal describing a loose collection of symptoms he consistently encountered upon eating out at Chinese restaurants, ranging from headaches, to neck pain, to palpitations of the heart. Dr. Ho would go on to perform a series of tests on lab rats which involved feeding them copious quantities of MSG. When the rats inevitably developed brain legions, MSG was declared a health risk and has been spoken of in hushed tones ever since.

The part of this story you don’t hear is that Dr. Ho fed them ridiculously high quantities of MSG compared to anything that would be fed to you at Chinese restaurant. The part of the story you don’t hear is how food manufacturing companies, instead of not putting MSG in their product, began to relabel MSG as ‘Artificial Flavours’, and other misnomers, so that we never actually stopped consuming it. The part of the story you don’t hear is how there are virtually no complaints of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ in Asia, despite Asian cooking utilising more MSG than any other cultural demographic. Not to mention the fact that that there hasn’t been a conclusive study indicating that MSG is bad for you since the 60s.

And yet, when I type MSG into a search engine, I see just as many websites indicating that MSG is a health risk as ones that debunk these myths. I myself was still under the impression that MSG was bad for me, until I found out what it actually was and the truth behind the matter.

Beliefs can be hard to change, guys, especially when you have large groups of people telling you that they’re right. Don’t base your truth soley on what’s commonly accepted. Be prepared to ask questions of both those around you and of yourself. Because truthfully, I do believe that wisdom is not measured by the times you are right, so much as the times you’re willing to concede that you’re wrong.

Stay gold, Pony Boy.

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37 thoughts on “MSG – Enhancing the Flavour of Intellectual Discourse

  1. LOVE THIS POST. In my day job, I work in Market Research and I work for one of the biggest retail based research companies in the world. I don’t know if you are aware of the Pony scandal in the UK with Horse DNA being found in the supply chain? We did a bunch of research too see if the scandal was changing people’s opinions on pre-processed beef products. The initial concern was over a Vetinary drug being found in the meat, there have been 0 cases of the drug being found even in samples with high horse meat content. So, there is no risk to human health.
    People “Said” it didn’t change their purchasing habits, yet secretly it did and subconsciously they were not purchasing as many or as frequently as before. I am pretty sure that this will have long term impacts on the consumption of pre-processed beef products even though horse meat is lean and probably slightly better for you than beef.

    • I had not heard about that scandal, but I believe it. To be honest, I’ve always been one of those people who doesn’t really understand the differentiation between eating a cow and eating a horse, a dog or a squirrel. It seems to me that ultimately something gives its life, why is do people find it ethically reassuring to only eat the animals designated for ‘eating’? Are those animals more readily able to come to terms with their fate because they were bred for it? Though I do also have issues with the idea of mass production of animal meat as a whole… but that’s another can of worms. 🙂
      Interesting comparison, cheers for sharing TTW, and glad you enjoyed the post. ^^

      • I think the ethical reassurance of some animals being for eating actually comes down to compartmentalization and empathy. If an animal (dog, cat, horse) is something we think of as a companion and empathize with, it becomes emotionally part of our cultural circle, and eating it hits an ethical button labelled something like “Cannibalism! Bad!”

        Having some animals designated eating lets us stick them in a different mental cubbyhole where we don’t empathize with them, don’t connect with them, and can eat them without feeling like we are eating a ‘person.’

        Awesome post BTW, and good info. I did not know that about MSG.

      • Good observation, Jessica. I think you’re right, the larger social collective does use broad compartmentalisation trends when determining what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’ (btw, has anyone else been watching Adventure Time? I love you, Lemongrab. ^^). I guess that’s social ethics for you though.

        Eating animals aside, I will say that I do believe that compartmentalised social ethics can be problematic. It’s the same attitude that differentiates between heterosexual and homosexual relationships and civil unions, isn’t it? ‘They are different’ or ‘that situation is different’ may help the broader social dynamic to cope with moral and ethical conundrums, but what is acceptable is in consistent need of challenging as we become more and more culturally fluid in the information age. A wise man once told me ‘what is good for one epoch is poison to another’, and I believe he was right. We must be prepared to ask ourselves the hard questions, and challenge what we are capable of doing as individuals, in order to further the greater whole.

        Though eating cats may, or may not, be that thing… 🙂

        Thanks for your awesome comment, Jess. I post these interesting tidbits in the hopes of sparking some intelligent conversation, and you have not disappointed. Now, satiated, I retire for the evening… 😉

        Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. I love the overall message of this post. So many times we feel pressured to do things because everybody else does, for example to put my son into football instead of ballet that he loves, or to dislike another person or group based on a random distinguishing feature (gay people, asian people, indian people and thr list is never ending). Just because these things are bound up in cultural norms and just because everybody is doing it does not make it true or right. This is why I feel I’ve spent my whole life swimming against the stream. Great post!

    • Agreed, Steph. Other people’s expectations carry a lot of sway with most of us because all of us, in one way or another, have social and familial connection we know and love. Through awareness of this natural urge to run with the pack, tho, I am certain we can learn to monitor our patterns and demonstrate discerning. Glad you enjoyed it. Bweeoop. ^^

  3. Great article, I had thought there was something suspicious about all that MSG hype!
    Now I’m going eat all the MSG my heart desires…

    toad (chris jensen)

    • In the interest of playing devil’s advocate, I will say that, life sugar or salt or all the delcious things, too much of anything is general not good for you. But yeah, hoe down some sweet and sour pork, say I. Cheers Jenna. ^^

    • Cheers, Olivia. Yeah, I didn’t know for a long time, it’s one of those weird things I guess. I could do a whole other blog post on the stock modern culture puts in ‘scientifically quantified experiments’. Experiments which are often performed with the intent of proving their initial hypothesis, which, when proven, mean further grant money for all concerned. Experiments which are inevitably disproven years later due to their ineffectuality. I mean, do you know how easy it is to give mice and rats tumours? Poor things, it’s a wonder they’ve survived this long…
      But I digress. 🙂

      • I would love to see more posts like that. I’m interested. I think a lot of people are. Are you in England? (I’m slow on the draw. LOL.)

  4. Great post and anyone who quotes Sir Terry gets my vote every day. I use MSG in my own cooking in moderation … why in moderation? Because if you use too much, everything tastes the same. It tastes like pre-packaged food which is what I’m trying to avoid by cooking from scratch! Lemmings of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your brains!

  5. Seems like your blog post is a a perfect example of misinformation in itself. Perhaps you should do your research before claiming that MSG is safe to consume. There are plenty of valid studies out there which indicate its adverse reactions, particularly in those suffering from autism (http://www.msgtruth.org), diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and more. Whilst small quantities may not affect some people there are many people with allergies who are highly sensitive to MSG even in small amounts. There are also various medications on the market which contain glutamate blockers in patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, depression and epilepsy. Why would these exist is glutamate wasn’t an issue? whats your next article on ‘An intellectual discourse on Aspartame’?

    • Thank god, somebody took the bait. I was a little worried no one was going to question this one… >:)

      First of all, Sol, I don’t fault you for not taking what I have to say at face value, however derogatorily you may choose to phrase your issue. Questioning is the quinessential message of this post. Second of all, you are mistaken. I did not tell you that MSG is safe for consumption. Read the article again. What I did was point out that the baseless nature of ‘Chinese Restaraunt Syndrome’. I can quite easily believe that eating too much of anything can cause health issues. Third of all, I stand by my statement that no conclusive studies have been conducted indicating that MSG is bad for you. What do I mean by conclusive? Expements conducted, journal articles written and consistently verifiable results. MSGtruth.org is written by one woman, and is simply not a reliable source. It links MSG to a number of generic ailments without a) consistent journal references, or b) verifiable evidence. Even when she does provide journal articles or minutes for congressional hearings involving health, she has simply cut and pasted anything which could potentially link MSG to a health problem. What does this tell me? That she’s already decided MSG is bad and is simply connecting the dots, as many people have following the advent of Chinese Restaraunt Syndrome in the 60s.
      Fourthly, the primary health concerns listed on the website are the exacerbation of known health conditions such as autism, cancer, etc. This is possible, but does not link MSG to causing health problems, it simply indicates an potential detriment to people who are already ill. Ulmately though, I will repeat what I’ve already said – glutamate and salt occur naturally in a lot of food. They are not artificial compounds, MSG is generally made from fermented yeast.
      I will concede that the most plausible health concern for MSG that I’ve ever heard is its connection to obesity, because the foodstuffs that it is naturally present in generally contain large quantities of protein. It makes sense that our bodies might digest proteins more readily when glutimates are introduced. But y’know what else can be linked to obesity? Sugars, carbs and fats. Yes, it’s surprising, but delicious things can be bad for us when eaten in excess. Everything in moderation, until I have reason to believe otherwise.
      I sympathise with your outlook, Sol, but there are simply too many holes to accept this at face value. Someone telling you something is true is simply not enough to go on, especially when money so readily follows health commissions involved in investigating potentially hazardous foodstuffs. Had it not occurred to you that there might be alternative motives to condemning MSG?
      Seriously – breast milk, cheese, meat, tomatoes. Full of glutamate. Look it up.
      Namaste.

    • Oh, and don’t even get me started on the number of unneccesary medications on the market. Existence does not dictate necessity. Pharmaceuticals are one of the biggest cash cows of the western world, and they’d make a pill to block gamma-radiation if they thought they could market it as an ‘Anti-Hulk Suppressant’. 🙂

      • I completely agree with you on the madness of the pharmaceuticals. There is a drug for everything even when unnecessary; the west medicates too much in my opinion. But hey, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry, so suppressants and blockers for everything are bound to be made and distributed.

  6. I’m from the camp of the belief that consuming items in their natural source is preferable to consuming concentrations of isolated nutrients – as in MSG, artificial flavors, wonder herb supplements, and pharmaceuticals! 🙂 Although at times of imbalance, a concentrated source if of benefit – and occasional indulgence does not usually negatively affect those in general good health.

    That said, I still greatly enjoyed and agree with your post – I laughed at the Sir Terry quote and it reminded me of one of my dad’s favorite sayings:
    “Never underestimate the destructive nature of large groups of stupid people.”

    And, after reading your post and the comments, I feel refreshed and ready to swim upstream, against the tide, etc., once more! Sometimes I get tired and lazily float with the flow – but my arms are rested now…

    😀

    • Sage words, Tamrah. I agree, I think that it’s hard to go past naturally occurring supplements (though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t indulge in artificial ones :)). I had a great philosophy lecturer years ago who wrote a number of books and thesises on a ‘natural pattern’ when it came to physical health, well-being and general existence, and I’m inclined to see his point. Mother nature just seems to have our number. 😉

      Glad you feel rejuvenated. Feel free to bathe in the shallow end for along as you like. 🙂

      • I thought, at one time, I was a closet philosopher – as I so often seek to find that ‘one formula’ that will work, no matter the situation – –

        Alas, I am to eagerly attracted by new adventures and have lived a life time of diving into topics and projects, reaching so far and declaring,

        “Good Enough! What’s Next?”

        😀

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