MSG Umami on POI

Why Do People Love Umami but Fear MSG?

July 11, 2019

Why do people love the taste of Umami but avoid monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is the purest form of Umami on Earth? In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy speaks with experts on MSG— which was first isolated by Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda— to explore this culinary and scientific disconnect.

Tia Rains, PhD, is currently Senior Director of Public Relations at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition (Ajinomoto was founded in 1907 to manufacture and sell Ikeda’s MSG). She has over 20 years of experience in the fields of food and nutrition.

Mary Lee Chin MS, RD, has been involved in dietetics for over 40 years. She consults with food industry and commodity groups; including Monsanto, Ajinomoto, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

In 1968, a letter was published in the New England Journal of Medicine about “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, and general weakness and palpitation” after eating food from Chinese restaurants. The letter spurred decades of research into the so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” What does the science say about MSG, what roles do marketing and branding play, and what do mice have to do with all of this?


What was that great music you heard?

“Shimmering Lights” by Punch Deck / CC BY 3.0

“Wahre” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

“Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

Links Mentioned in this Episode

Hi, everyone. It’s me, Kavin Senapathy, your point of inquiry co-host. This episode is all about. I’m S.G. the delicious seasoning, sodium, salt of the amino acid glutamate and flavor enhancer. That’s the purest form of mommy on earth. 

Like so many Americans, I’ve asked for my Chinese takeout with no MSDS, please. I avoided MSJ for a couple years until I started to more critically examine my beliefs about food and learned that the ingredients bad rap is more or less baseless. So I was really intrigued when I received an invitation last year to attend the first ever invite only World Mommy Forum hosted by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. The forum was being put on by none other than Ajinomoto, which means essence of taste in Japanese. Ajinomoto was founded to sell M.S. G. After a Japanese chemist, Dr. Cahoon, a Akita, first isolated the crystal salt of the amino acid glutamate from Kobu seaweed. Last fall was a busy travel schedule, but I just had to go, if only to see why added a motel would put on an invite only two day event. All about MSJ team. And so I went the journalist part of me was extremely skeptical about it. I’ve been to a food industry sponsored events before. And overall, the food industry doesn’t exactly scream transparency. 

But by the end of the second day, it seemed as if Ajinomoto was there to take the audience, which consisted largely of dietitians and journalists and bloggers through the big picture of why MSD is so reviled in America. Despite decades of research to show that so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome isn’t a thing and it’s definitely not a thing attributable to M. S g. The forum covered the science, the cultural issues and the global history that are also relevant when it comes to answering this question. I wanted to do this episode because a mommy is pretty cool, and B, this is such a fitting example of how and why certain food ingredients and additives that aren’t harmful end up being so feared. Full disclosure, Ajinomoto covered my trip to the World Mommy Forum, including traveling, travel and lodging. But there was no expectation that invited guests would cover the forum or the company. We’re doing this episode because of the rich and fascinating history and science around this ingredient. First up, I talk with Tia Raines, the senior director of public relations at Ajinomoto and a nutrition expert of 20 years with APHC in nutrition science. Following my conversation with TIA will jump into my interview with registered dietitian Mary Leach in. 

I’m joined today by Tim Raines, who for the past two decades has been a health and nutrition expert in the food and nutrition industry, focused on the design and implementation of nutrition research and the subsequent translation of new findings into accurate communications that advance human health. She’s currently also the senior director of public relations at Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition North America. Thanks for joining me on point of inquiry here. 

Thank you for having me. 

This episode is all about a delicious seasoning, an amino acid, a flavor enhancer, and something that I’ve always quite enjoyed, but I didn’t always know that I was eating it. I’m talking about M.S. Gee, now I’ll go ahead and say it. When people think M.S., gee, they’re not thinking about nutrition and they’re not even thinking about mommy, which is one of the trendiest tastes du jour. It turns out that M.S. G is mommy. Which is why last year, when I received an invitation to the first ever invite only World Mommy Forum hosted by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, I decided that I absolutely had to squeeze this event into my fall travel schedule. Now, I saw TSA speak on a panel at the World Mommy Forum about the myths and mysteries behind m. S g. M. S G has always been around, but it wasn’t isolated until 1988. Could you take our listeners through a bit of a history of M.S. G and the story of its isolation from seaweed? My understanding is that it all started with soup. 

Yes, indeed. And it all started back in the late eighteen hundreds with a scientist in Tokyo named Dr. Ikeda. And he was fascinated by the taste of his wife’s soup. Doshi. It’s called there, which is they usually a mixture of seaweed or kelp and often fish flakes. And he knew that the soup had a distinct flavor that was different than what was known as the four basic tastes at that sour, salty and bitter. He also noticed on a trip to Germany that he was recognizing that same savory taste in foods that he had never tasted before that weren’t available in Japan at that time. And that was things like tomatoes, cheese and asparagus. And so he sought to determine what that savory taste was by essentially boiling down his wife’s. What was Kembu, which is the name of the kelp dashi, which is the broth. And what he was left with were the solids or the crystals after boiling down all of that liquid. 

And from there, he determined that it was predominantly MSJ or sodium with glutamate. And in further isolation, he was able to determine that it was the glutamate, which is an amino acid. Very common in nature. That was the cause or that was what was stimulating that savory taste in his wife’s soup. And at the time in Japan, there was rampant malnutrition. There was limited access to animal based foods. There was a lot of or limited diet diversity. And so he thought that by commercializing this taste as a seasoning, that he could encourage the consumption of more foods in Japan and help really increase the nutrition of the country. And so he partnered with the local businessman, basically, did, you know, commercialized monosodium glutamate, which is now been the same since nineteen or nine when it was brought to market over there? 

It’s it’s surprising to me and also just fascinating that it seems as if humans have always liked or enjoyed this. This taste, this now what we know is a fifth taste, which is mommy. But it wasn’t until 1998 that somebody even thought that there might be something to this taste that we love so much. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of how humans have used it and concentrated glutamate without necessarily knowing it? 

Yes. And it’s a fascinating history of of this desire for that flavor. And you see it all over the world through many different centuries where they were the populations were either fermenting food, which is a a technique to preserve food, but it’s also a way to increase the glutamate in that particular food. So most fermented foods are very high in glutamate. Drying is another technique. That, again, was used for bird preservation, as well as enhancing the taste of different foods. And that is also a process by which you can increase the glutamate concentration. So if you look throughout history, there are many examples where where this flavor was being introduced by these different techniques. And certainly before we we were commercializing some of these other tastes, such as sugar and salt and whatnot. You know, we were using these techniques to to increase the savoriness. And in fact, we’re all exposed to very early on to the savory taste in breast milk. It’s glutamates, the predominant amino acid. And there’s been some studies done in infants taste studies where you can introduce these tastes just to the tongue of very small infants and capture their their facial expression. And in fact, when you give infants glutamate as monosodium glutamate, their face has the same reaction that it does with sugar or sweet. So it’s something we are we are exposed to very early on. 

And and like very early on. But it’s not one of these flavors that we we think about because it’s just not in at least in the US. It’s just not in our lexicon. This mommy, no one says, you know, your your mother makes you a meatloaf. She doesn’t say move. Doesn’t that tastes so good, Mommy? You know, we do that. It’s your mommy. Yeah. Yeah, we do that with sweets. And, you know, we’ll make a connection with bitter if somebody, you know, has a lemon, you know, it’s always fun to give kids some of these foods or they’ll do it as a day and you make that connection. But we’re very rarely do we connect here in the US on that savory taste being mommy. And that it’s delicious and pleasurable. 

That’s so funny. So after the World Tomomi Forum, I was I started reading everything I could about MSJ. I was reading everything from scientific literature to to articles. If I remember coming home from from my travel at the end of my travel season last fall, and I had these little bottles of MSJ and I’m like, kids, you got to try this. I want to just give you like a little a little taste of this MSJ. And they looked really, you know, they looked kind of skeptical. And I said it tastes kind of like salt, but I just want you to taste it. And it was it was kind of cool to see their their face facial expressions. Excuse me, but. But as we were discussing, of course, glutamate and MSJ is just kind of always been around. It’s part of nature. It’s part of being human. 

But in. 

And also, I should add that MSJ, of course, after after it was commercialized, was extremely popular and still is, of course, extremely popular in China and Japan and became a kitchen staple. But in nineteen sixty eight, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter to the editor from a doctor who recounted pain in his arms and feelings of weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. And he pondered whether it was the cooking wine or Emmis G or excessive salt that could be to blame in Chinese food at Chinese restaurants and replies from reader readers excuse me, then started pouring in, complaining of similar symptoms. 

So what happened with the science on M.S. G following this letter? 

Well, the letter also included word of a a request for others to investigate these findings. And so a couple of scientists took that challenge and stepped up. And at the time, it was very common practice to test animals, but do it in a way that, you know, people thought was was getting the the active ingredient into their system to look at the physiological effects. The time we didn’t understand the role of the digestive tract. And so a lot of the negativity was really coming out of a lab by the name of Dr Oni, who was injecting large doses of M.S. gene directly into rats and mice and reporting very negative effects, which is not surprising. As we know, even if you were to inject a large volume of water into a rat, a mouse, you could potentially kill that animal because again, we have a digestive tract that serves a very important purpose in being that interface between the food that we eat and then the ultimate metabolites that are circulating in our system. 

But because that wasn’t acknowledged at the time, you had these two events that were on the heels of one another where you had the the letter to the editor in the New England Journal and then this multiple pieces of evidence coming out of rats and mice that it was very easy for people to point a finger at monosodium glutamate and consider it a health hazard. And that’s essentially what what happened was it was demonized because of of this research, but shortly thereafter. Additional research was initiated. And really it at this point, it’s probably one of the most researched food ingredients of all time because it went through so many iterations of human studies, non-human primates, as well as other animal research where it was fed in the way in which it was intended. Which is as a dietary ingredient, not as an injectable. And those studies, it has been proven safe time and time again. But like what happens often in nutrition? It only takes one or two negative reports to really change perceptions and change the the way we see a particular food or ingredient. 

And then subsequently takes volumes of research to unravel that negative association. 

There are so many social reasons that that have interacted with the science on MSJ and people’s perceptions. And I’m really interested in that. And where we’re planning actually another segment of point of inquiry, one where we talk about how all of these social issues, including racism and xenophobia, kind of drove this this bad science. But when it comes to studies in mice, there’s a hashtag on Twitter that I enjoy checking out from time to time, and it’s just hashtag in mice. And it’s all about these studies that happen in mice. But then the corresponding headlines that suggest that that these studies show that something is true in humans. And of course, you’ve got to take that with several grains of salt. I’ve told my readers before, do not inhale azodicarbonamide, which is another malign food processing ingredient. 

So I think it’s also safe to say that our listeners definitely should not inject them as well, although I will say there have been studies in humans where it has been injected and there has been no no evidence of it, though. 

And again, it rats and mice are very different than humans. And humans have a lot more sophisticated mechanisms, especially with with when it comes to amino acids, but also glutamate. And this is where I think often people go when they’re they’re trying to to villainize MSJ is that glutamate is one of the main excitatory amino acids in our brain neurotransmitter. And it’s involved in memory. It’s very important. And because of its importance, the human body has many mechanisms that are protecting that system and ensuring that the glutamate that we eat does not affect the glutamate in our brain. And and vice versa. And in fact, the glutamate that we eat, whether it’s from monosodium glutamate or what’s inherently present in so many foods that we eat, it doesn’t even get through the digestive tract. In fact, it’s used as energy to kill those cells that line the digestive tract, which is probably another reason that it’s so high in breast milk, quite frankly, because there’s such rapid turnover of of cells as that is developing, that it makes sense that they would want an easy you source to be able to support that. 

So, again, it’s it’s a very sophisticated mechanisms in place for these very important molecules that are in our body. And that may be one of many, many differences between humans and rats and mice when it comes to looking at these different ingredients and their impact on physiology. 

Right. You know, in in my. Of course, lay reading of all of this information on an MSJ and glutamate. I’ve I yeah, I often see this almost as in scare quotes regularly, that MSJ is an excitatory neurotransmitter so it can cause all of these effects in humans. I’ve even read that it can contribute to the development of disorders like fibromyalgia, which I’ve actually been diagnosed with recently. But I just don’t I. Thank you. It’s it’s well managed. So. So that’s a good thing. But I just I haven’t seen any anything compelling at all to suggest that MSDS is doing anything in our brains to cause these symptoms that people often tie it to. 

Yeah, no, none. None at all. And it’s been studied around the world in various different labs many, many times to try to address this because that’s a legitimate concern. And so it wasn’t without a lot of investing in that area of research that these all these regulatory agencies around the world have all come to the same conclusion, which is it’s the research does not support that. It is not a concern. The glutamate that you eat does not affect the glutamate in your brain. And then, in fact, the glutamate that you eat doesn’t even impact the glutamate circulating in your blood because it’s just completely or almost completely consumed by the digestive tract. 

No, you’ve heard this because it’s a very prominent criticism, which is that MSJ is often found in processed food and that big food, the big food industry uses MSJ to sort of addict people to processed unhealthy food. Now, there is a really recent research that suggests that consuming this ultra processed, empty calorie types of foods can lead to over eating and weight gain. So what are your thoughts and Agena Motos position on this criticism that MSJ is found really often and highly processed, empty calorie types of foods? 

Well, that’s true. I mean, right now in the U.S. food supply, it’s found in savory snacks. So things like Doritos and Pringles. It’s also found in a lot of fast food establishments, often in the breading of fried chicken. And it’s added not is something that a product developer you don’t purposely added or some sort of addictive quality, but it’s added because it makes the food taste good. It makes food delicious, much like other ingredients are selected for that purpose, I think, because of the backlash on MSJ over the years. It a lot of manufacturers have taken it out of foods that would be considered better for you, because those people that buy those types of foods often are label readers and may be more sensitive to some of these ingredients. Plus this push towards clean label. And so I think it’s kind of remained in this class of foods that is is considered alter or processed or maybe, you know, foods that you should eat in real moderation because the consumers of those products are not as concerned with every single ingredient on that label. What I would love to see is that as consumers get the facts in and are no longer afraid of this ingredient and recognize that it’s safe, it can make foods taste good. And also, quite frankly, the other benefit of MSJ that is underutilized in the food industry is that it can help reduce the need for sodium in a product. And this always throws people because sodium is in the name of Monacan glutamate. 

It sounds completely counterintuitive that it does, but as a molecule, the sodium component of MSJ is only 12 percent versus in sodium chloride. It’s 40 percent of sodium. And so we know and there’s been probably 10 to 15 different studies and different applications that have been sensory analysis where you show people a product with reduced sodium and ask them to rate the palatability and have that same product at a reduced sodium with some level of MSJ in there that you can often get Herrity of the palatability. Or sometimes people prefer the lower sodium version with MSJ added. 

And sometimes it’s upwards of 30 to 50 percent. You can reduce the sodium in a food products such as processed meats, soups, certain mixed meals, savory snacks. So you get this this benefit of sodium reduction that is underutilized because of the perception or in my opinion, it’s underutilized because of this perception issue. 

So I I am hopeful that as as the facts are being embraced by consumers, that hopefully manufacturers will start adding it back to these better for you products to again enhance the taste, but also to try to address the sodium, which continues to be a major issue in the U.S. and around the world, where sodium intakes way above where we where we should be. 

Yeah, well, when I was at the World in Miami Forum, I met this dietitian and I don’t at all endorse this, but I thought it was interesting and a bit amusing. And I mean, do with this information what you will listeners. But this dietician had. She was doing a little bit of an experiment on her spouse and she had replaced. I want. I don’t remember exactly how much, but maybe about a half of the regular table salt in her and the salt shaker that they kept on their table with M.S. G to see if he would notice. And at the time, he had not yet noticed. So that was interesting. I’m I’m sure it’s it’s always an adventure being married to a dietitian. 

But, you know, after I’ve learned more about MSJ, I’ve been putting it in and vegetables when I when I cook vegetables, like just the other day a day, I had some Regla with with, you know, of all kinds of seasonings that I like and a little bit of MSJ. And I personally love it. But as you said, you know, there’s this there are people who who are of this segment or demographic that avoid certain ingredients and prefer, quote, clean eating, which is of course, fodder for a whole other episode. But I’ve seen I’ve seen certain fast casual restaurants that claim that their menus are all clean, you know, proudly declare that that there’s no M.S. G or added MSJ in their food because, of course, it’s naturally occurring. So, of course, glutamate is in their food. We’re living in this era where some of the more high and or perceived to be high end establishments are saying that there’s no MSJ in their food. But at the same time, mommy is, you know, is so popular. How is this happening? How is this sort of paradox existing right now? 

Yeah. I mean, it’s a paradox. I agree with you that there is because of where we are right now and this this aversion to food ingredients is not new. It’s like many other trends or fads and nutrition that kind of comes and goes in waves. Right now, we’re at we’re at a point where we’re very anti. Food additive, and I think that’s I think there’s a couple of things, and again, this is sort of my opinion here as a nutrition professional. But I think. MSJ is put in this class with other food additives that are not natural, that are, you know, people think it’s chemically derived. It’s actually produced by fermentation here in the US is produced from corn through a fermentation reaction, much like I was mentioning before. 

When you ferment certain foods, you increase the the glutamic acid like soy sauce is an example of that. We use that same process of fermentation to create MSJ. So it’s from a natural ingredient. Unfortunately, when it was brought here to this country, it was it came with that name monosodium glutamate, which sounds it is its chemical structure. We don’t refer to salt as sodium chloride. Chloride. 

Yeah, unless you’re a chemist and there’s other foods it. Well, I mean, we know to on the label that when the chemical name for the vitamin is included, that the perception is that’s a chemical, whereas it may just be vitamin C if it’s written as a scorebook acid. It sounds somehow different than if it’s vitamin C though. No, I think there’s a couple of challenges for MSJ if it came over as well. Mommy seasoning. I think we may be in a different place than we are right now. It’s also a time in the because the nutrition climate where transparency is very important. And so, you know, our position is it’s monosodium glutamate. We’re not trying to to pull the wool over. Everyone dies by saying it’s the mommy seasoning. We know we’re proud of this ingredient. It is the foundation of the company. And again, we stand by the the safety and its use as a as a seasoning. 

Right. So my understanding, actually, I always find these these naming and labeling issues to be really fascinating. But in in China and Japan or at least in Japan, when people use this product, which, you know, there are other companies now that sell NSG, but it’s known just as Ajinomoto. Right. 

Yes. Or is an ingredient. It’s often labeled as amino acid or amino acids. And in some parts of the world, it’s it’s labeled as mommy seasoning. So it’s really here, and I think Europe is the and there’s probably other countries, I just. I’m not sure off the top of my head, but I mean, where were you required to label it as monosodium glutamate? Right now, based on the current regulation? In the US, in the US. Yes. And I believe Europe has the same distinction. But I would say we should confirm that before anyone quotes me, I’m sure. 

OK, got it. I mean, do you do you see the tides turning at all when it comes? 

I know that you mentioned clean label and there’s a third party certifier called the Clean Label Project. And. 

And any any restaurant or or food manufacturer that wants this third party clean label certification cannot add M. S g. But again, at the same time, we’re talking about this paradox where people love you. Mommy, do you do you see this changing in the next five, 10 years? What what direction do you see see this going especially with Americans, but even globally, we’re seeing some positive movement on the perception of MDG. 

And we’ve been talking to a lot of registered dietitians lately. And, you know, this is a group that when you present them with the facts, they will, for the most part, adjust their opinion accordingly. And we are seeing that, too, with consumers and chefs that people that are science based, that respect science and and use it to change their opinion, that it it certainly is irrefutable if you look at the evidence. And I would encourage anyone to go and do that, because that’s ultimately why I ended up wanting to be part of legitimately in this project, is because I looked at the science and I thought, here’s something that is has been maligned for no reason. And it’s the type of issue that I gravitate to in nutrition, which is making sure that people know the facts and and sharing the facts, communicating the facts in a way that people of all audiences can understand what you know, I think as we as the health professionals understand the science, as the culinary professionals understand it is kind of those savvy consumers that that are interested in this information. Understand it. 

I’m hopeful that we will see this this sea change towards acceptance of MSJ for what it is, which, again, the seasoning that can make food tastes good and it has this potential benefit of sodium reduction. And then in terms of globally, you know, much of the world doesn’t have an issue with this ingredient and it sits on the table in different countries than it’s used at much higher volumes than we use it here in the US for any purpose. In places like Taiwan and Nigeria. And they don’t have this negative. Perception of of MSJ. But there are other parts of the world like the US and Europe. 

And I’m sure other countries that, you know, are still a little nervous about it or or weary. 

And so I’m work. I’m hopeful that with the facts that we’ll be able to to sort of make a change in how people perceive this ingredient in the future. 


You know, transparency is really important, I think, especially in the food industry. And I’ve I’ve covered certain companies and my work and interacted with the companies and the food and ag and nutritional nutrition world. Excuse me. 

I’ve often been discouraged at how that the company interfaces with people, with people. It almost sometimes seems condescending. It sometimes seems as if these food industry companies will preach transparency, but not actually walk that talk leading up to the World Mommy Forum. I didn’t really know what to expect because, I mean, it’s a world mommy forum. That’s never happened before. But, you know, within the first few hours of being there, it Gina motto seemed to me like a breath of fresh air for someone who covers food, because I mean that the transparency, it almost seemed too good to be true, to be honest. You know, for a week or so after the world, a mommy forum, I’m sitting here trying to figure out like there’s gotta be there’s gotta be something wrong here because they seem so transparent and they’re going, you know, that the the event itself went into so much of the science, so much of the social issues. And it seemed as if Ajinomoto was just there saying, you know, listen, people love you, Mommy, right now. Nobody understands that mommy is M.S. G and M.S. G is mommy. And we’re just here to to kind of tell you everything we know. So that that’s the feeling that I that I got from being at the World Mommy Forum. And I’m not sure how involved you were with it, but I understand that you joined Ajinomoto last year. So does that seem like part of the impetus behind the World Mommy Forum was to just kind of show people this is who we are and this is what we do? 

Absolutely. And I joined shortly before the World Mommy Forum and. And like I said before, I joined because I was really impressed with the company and the commitment and a lot of it goes back to the culture of Japan and how they do business there and their. Their investment in quality and in research, which. 

It’s somebody that’s worked in the food industry here in the U.S. for 20 plus years now, I’ve seen this change here where there’s been less of an investment in research and, you know, just more of an investment in the development side. But I think it’s important to invest in the research and understand the ingredients that you’re selling and not just in terms of how how they work on a food science level. But I know I know this is an unpopular opinion with many people out there. But I think food companies also have a responsibility to invest in the nutrition, understanding of their products. And I know industry funded research is often seen with a jaundiced eye. But I think that if standards of quality are followed, that it’s there is it behooves the food companies to understand their products and their impact on human health. And that philosophy is still apparent at Ajinomoto and. Again, because this company was founded on MSJ. They have an interest in its reputation, even though here in the U.S. we don’t sell a retail product. There’s no retail Ajinomoto product available. You know, going back to their their roots and their in their commitment to the quality of their of their products, they felt it was they felt the all the evidence had been developed to a point that they were ready to go out and share the story. The entire story, as you say, the science, the history, the application where it can be used and just have this two way dialog with culinary and health professionals as well as other people with a vested interest for two days in a room to kick off, hopefully. What’s what will be a educational campaign to inform inform the public on what is and what isn’t MSJ. 

I’ll never forget the World of Miami Forum. But it was also fun trying weird foods with Andrew Zimmern profits. I did try the crickets. Do you want to tell the listeners a little bit about these crickets? 

It makes me a little sick to my. I’m not a great leader myself. Yeah. Yes. 

It’s in Argo, which is a Rick a cricket that’s full of mommy. I mean, it’s it’s my understanding is it’s soy sauce and other mommy rich flavorings and it’s eaten as a. You’ll have to tell me how it tasted. 

I tried it. I just had to. And I’ve tried insects before. I’m not a huge fan. And I think it’s mostly in my head. And that’s an episode that I should try to pursue. About insect protein, because it’s very interesting. Yeah, it was I wouldn’t have it again, mostly because of the texture. But it was it was worth the experience just to try it. It’s been really fun and informative talking to you. And like so many of my guests, I could I could spend hours talking to you, even if even if that’s a little long for a podcast. But in your you know, in closing in your professional and or personal opinions, could you share a couple of the coolest facts about glutamate and MSJ for our science fans? 

Well, let’s see. 

It takes a very small amount of of them S.G. or glutamate to season any food. 

So if you’re going to experiment in the kitchen, start very small and it’s usually anything over one percent of that. Your science fans, we’re talking percent. 

Anything over one percent starts to have a negative impact on flavor. So it’s just a small amount. So like a half a teaspoon for a half pound of meat or four to six servings of vegetables or two, though very little. 

The the formula that you referred to before when you were saying the dietician that you talked to with the world of mommy are chef that we work with. Whereas by his formula, which is two part salt, the one part MSJ and he mixed. 

I think that’s what it was. Right. 

Yeah. I’m using that in what is a salt replacement will actually reduce the amount of sodium that you use by 25 percent automatically just in that mixture. 

And I would say one of the the highest sources of glutamate in the diet is Parmesan cheese. But most people don’t know that and cut and dried. Here’s another interesting fact. 

Dried mushrooms have more mommy hit than fresh mushrooms. 

So if you’re looking and like I’m a huge fan of chicken marsala. 

I don’t know why I love that stuff, but I make it a childhood comfort food or you just just like it. 

I don’t know what all of my favorite foods. 

I love chicken when I love the mushrooms and the marsala wine. I think just gives it such an interesting taste profile. 

But when I and I make it with fresh mushrooms, I always add the dash of MSJ and then it might have dried mushrooms around all rehydrate those and often use those. 

Then it ends up in the same place. So it’s kind of a fun way to play with you. Mommy and NIDA, the power of glutamate in its various forms. 

Well, playing with your mommy is is so much fun. I’m lucky to have some chefs and good cooks in my personal circle. 

Because I’m not a great, great cook or it distresses me out, but I like being there when it’s happening. We don’t necessarily endorse or not endorse tricking your spouse, but if you want to try. If you want to try the formula, it’s one third MSJ to two thirds salt in the shaker. Thanks so much for joining me, Tia. 

Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure. 

Now we’re back with Mary Lee, who has been a registered dietitian for 40 years. Nutritionist isn’t a credential designation in the U.S. Many registered dietitians go by ardia and which stands for registered dietitian, nutritionist. But the dietician part of that is what’s Daniel? The Denver Post calls our guest Denver’s go to dietitian. And like me, she’s the daughter of immigrants in Mary Lee’s case, Chinese immigrants, which shaped the way she sees food. 

We’re back with part two of our episode, all about MSJ, the delicious seasoning, amino acid and flavor. Any answer? That’s the purest form of mommy on earth. We talked earlier with T.R. Raines on the science of M.S. G, which stands for monosodium glutamate. But we also touched on some of the social and cultural issues that have played a big part throughout the history of M.S. G, especially after it was first isolated in 1988. And now we’re taking a closer look at these social and cultural issues, but also at the science, because, of course, it’s really hard to disentangle all of this. Now, Mary, you sat on a panel at the World Mommy Forum on debunking the myths and mysteries behind M.S. G. 

And your assigned myth on that panel is that MSJ is hazardous to your health. And to that question you explained that you bring to the table not only 40 years as a dietitian, which is cause a lot to to bring to the table, but also that you’ve been Chinese all your life, as you put it. And your brother, until he retired, recently owned the second largest Chinese restaurant on Long Island. And now we’ll come back, of course, to the science that you unpacked during the panel. But first, can you share a bit about how your cultural perspective has influenced the way that you think about MSD? 

Gladly. As you mentioned, I’m the child of immigrant parents from China. My dad came over from China when he was 14 years old, then went back at the age of 20 and had an arranged marriage with my mom. 

Oh, wow. My parents said to it, that’s just something we have in common. I want to know how my uncle had an arranged marriage. 

OK. And then Dad was not able to bring my mom and my brother from China because of the Chinese exclusionary wars laws. And he fought in World War Two for the U.S. Army in Germany, including in the Battle of the Bulge. And it’s kind of every ward and a lessening of the exclusionary laws. He was able to bring my mom and brother from China. My parents ran a Chinese hand laundry, so they were very, very poor. But my mom was dazzled by the amount of food that she had to cook for her family compared to the poverty she experienced in China. So she cooked these wonderful dishes and there was always a jar of M.S. G in her kitchen, just as in the American kitchen, she would have salt and pepper and ketchup. And this G is something that I knew and accepted, didn’t even give a second thought about when I was growing up to make really delicious food. It was kind of a surprise to me when I started studying nutrition and dietetics in college and read about the concern about M.S. G. And in particular, I think what really struck me is that that whole myth about MSJ being problematic started with the letter to the New England Journal of Medicine written by a Chinese immigrant. So that’s been my history with Miss G, with my brother owning in the past the second largest Chinese restaurant on Long Island. He always used MSJ in his cooking as well. Again, he grew up with it similar to me. And then when this whole thing hit in terms of MSJ being problematic, he had a decrease in the number of customers who would come to a Chinese restaurant because they had they were fearful of the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome. And he had an increased number of his customers asking, do you use Emmis G. 

I remember asking at Chinese restaurants as well. 

I had no idea. I even have a friend who who tells me that she when she when she was pregnant and she was a scientist, she spent time in China. This is just a few years ago. And even there she was avoiding MSJ because she thought it was harmful. And again, this was a scientist. 

Right. And so this leads to a question that a Vogue food writer had asked, oh, probably about 30 years ago, which was if Ms. G. Causes headaches, why doesn’t everybody in China have a headache? Which would be a difficult thing to answer, but easily from the science perspective, because we know Ms. G. In terms of its links to headaches and other chronic issues or acute. Issues really have no scientific basis to hold that up. 

Speaking of the science, both you and Sarah talked about the poorly executed science that fed into the Chinese restaurant syndrome craze, and one of them in particular stood out to me. And I’m guessing that some of our listeners have come across this new Twitter account, but is making waves recently. 

And the Twitter handle is at just says in mice. And it’s run by a scientist who tweets about stories that rely on on most studies to make claims about human health. And I got to say, one of the worst mice studies that I’ve come across used to make claims about human health is a 1976 study entitled The Induction of a of Obesity in Rodents by means of muno sude sodium glutamate. And there were a few major problems with this study. Right. As well as some of the other science, scientific studies and research that were happening this time. 

Can you give us an overview of the problems with this research and the methodologies of these studies conducted in the years following the 1968 letter? 

Absolutely. Those studies and other similar studies leveraged off some original speculation that obesity might be a sign of damage to the hypothalamus, which is the area of the brain that regulates a number of functions, including weight control. And so this study, like many others, found that infant laboratory animals, particularly mice and rats, suffered brain damage and subsequent obesity as a result of injection of M.S. G. And there are plenty of problems with this particular study. So, for example, this study injected three milligrams of MSJ per kilogram of body weight into mice, which is a massive dose. So the dose is the problem. As a matter of fact, in a review of this particular study, another researcher said that that dose might be more appropriate to a horse, but definitely not two rats and mice. When you also take a look at the means of how they deliver the M.S. G, that is problematic. They injected it subcutaneously under the skin and humans don’t get our M.S. G that way. We get it through food and it’s an addition with a sprinkle on food. So one, we would never get that amount. And two, we would never inject it. And I would also hazard to say that you could proudly inject some of the most benign ingredients under your skin that we normally would eat at would. And it would cause some problem, because that’s not the way that we get those ingredients. When we take a look at the amount, three milligrams of masc g through gram per kilogram of body weight, the amount that people get in the United States is about half a gram total of MSJ in the day. And if you were to divide that by your pounds of body weight or kilograms of body weight, then that would be even more. My nute. So that’s a problem right there. And lastly, I would take a look at this study and say, you really cannot directly correlate the results that you get in these mice and rats to humans. When we take a look at studies that are being done, yes, we start with mice and rats and then it goes up the chain of animals and eventually we get to humans. If that study results warranted. But to directly correlate something that is in the laboratory, animals does not make any sense and say it also happens to human humans. I would also like to know that in doing the injections in this study on mice and rats, they were able to find that the obesity occurred in rats, but not in mice. So how do you tease that out in terms of application to humans? When we contrast that study to double blind placebo studies that have taken a look in humans with M.S., gee. Ingestion. It’s completely different. In one study, researchers put. G. Or in the diet and placebos, in the other subjects, diet, and they got a tiny amount of response, negative response in both the M.S. G and the placebo controlled study subjects. Then when they reversed the amount of whether you were taking a placebo or an MSJ, they couldn’t get the same results that people are who said that they had a negative reaction to M.S. G when they were given a placebo? Reported the same reaction. The people who said they had a negative reaction to a placebo when given the M.S. G also had a negative reaction. So when you try to find something that is comprehensive that we can pull from these studies, those mice and rats studies, that laboratory animal studies simply do not hold water because the way that they are given the is g the amount that they’re given and trying to correlate mice and rats directly with humans. Whereas the human studies where they’re fed amounts and even higher amounts than we would normally eat show there is no effect. So I thank you for the opportunity to talk about it because those studies have really bothered me. People, particularly, I think the general public get these headlines that say MSJ causes headaches or neurological damage or weight gain in when you eat it, but it doesn’t go into the finer details of who was done on and the dose that was given. 


And I think that this is just something to always look for when you when you see this report reporting that makes health claims about. About humans as first. 

Just look at whether the research was actually done on on humans. And we we’ve gone through all of the recent science. There’s absolutely now no evidence that Chinese restaurant syndrome is real. But I don’t think that you or really anyone involved with the World or Mommy Forum are suggesting that absolutely nobody in the world could possibly have a sensitivity to Ms. G. 

And Mary Lee, you said in your remarks that there may be a subset of the population that experiences a sensitivity to MSJ. And you you said that the most practical thing in that case is to eliminate it from one’s diet. But would you say that this is particularly true about M.S. G. Or is this general advice that you give as an as an AADI to anyone who feels that they have a sensitivity to a particular food or ingredient? 

Yes, and I think for people who are sensitive to MSJ and it’s very, very, very small subset and even the FDA acknowledged that there is a tiny subset that would have adverse symptoms to Ms. G. And so I have to be very practical and I want to be very realistic when I’m talking to people. And if they say they have an aversion and an allergy or an untoward effect to MSJ, then the very simple thing to do is to avoid it. At Christmas, I bake a lot of Christmas cookies and I use walnuts and fern. I don’t know how it happened, but this year I developed some untoward effects that is some source in my mouth to eating walnuts now rather than saying to everybody within my sphere, in my environment, don’t eat walnuts. I made the decision, I’m going to use pecans now instead of walnuts. Oh. Because you have a very realistic approach to understanding what affects you then the very realistic everyday approach to it is to simply not use it. It’s not problematic when it comes to walnuts or to M.S., gee, because they’re not essential part for the nutrition of a diet. And I would never say to a patient or a friend who is asking me or any consumer said, you know, I really feel I have an adverse reaction to Ms. G to insist that they are wrong. There is plenty of other information and I can offer them from a health and nutritional perspective. So I’m not going to concentrate on that negative part. I’ll give them a very simple solution, and that is the simple solution. 

I’ve seen some in the nutrition world or even in general sort of ridicule people for thinking that they or first saying that they experience a negative or adverse reaction to RSG or gluten. 

And I just don’t see how that makes sense on an individual basis. If you feel better avoiding something, then that’s great. Of course, with gluten, it can be more problematic because eliminating gluten Kanal can often lead to problems. So of course, people should do that with the advice of their health care provider. 

But but when it comes to M.S., gee, I recall you saying that according to the FDA, the intake for the average adult off of glutamate from food sources is around 13 grams, if I recall correctly. And then the added is less than one gram. And with that added amount, you say that there are some health benefits, right? 

Absolutely. Because the glutamate gives us this sensation or the taste of mommy, which we consider the fifth basic taste now. And mommy is a very rich, satisfying, savory taste. It makes food tastes good. From the chemical perspective, it is monosodium glutamate. So when we take a look at health is if you substitute some M.S., gee, for the salt that you put in your diet, you still get great tasting food, but you can decrease the amount of sodium and sodium. Be a problem for many people who have high blood pressure, for example, and they need to decrease their sodium intake. So a substitution there is really important. I think also when you take a look of that rich taste that glutamate or MSJ provides, it can also help our increasingly elderly population. As we age, our taste buds are not as sensitive. And so foods that used to taste very good to us when we were younger. Don’t taste so great now. So using glutamate rich foods or using a sprinkle of M.S. G can enhance the taste of that food. I mentioned my mom earlier cooking with M.S. Gee, when I was a child. My mom died last year at the age of one hundred taste buds. Really not quite the same as it was when she was 30 years old, when she first came to the United States. She was fortunate to live in a Chinese nursing home where the staff, the patients, the nurses and the food were all Chinese. And I know that the chefs and the cooks in that nursing home went to great pains to include M.S. G in their recipes. Plus, they use a lot of msh g. Mommy rich foods such as the fermented soybeans and soy sauce. And the sauce is based on soy, which were very rich in glutamate, which provides that a mommy flavor. So I think, you know, just being able to utilize Emmis G can enhance people’s diets from the basis of decreasing sodium. And also as we care for an increasingly elderly population, too. 

I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your mother, but one hundred years, that’s amazing. And that’s so nice for her that she was able to have the foods that she loved with that that kind of attention from from the the Chinese staff that was there. 

So I’m sure that all made you you as her daughter feel feel good about that place for her. 

Absolutely. And 100 years old, I, I can only see I have good genes and that my mom used M.S. gee. Her whole life. Now, I’m not going to claim that prolonged her life because that was her totally unscientific. But I will say that she really didn’t have any harmful effects from utilizing her. 

Yeah, that is that is one data point. 

And it’s it is a compelling one, even even though it’s just one now. Well, again, when it comes to two data and the science, here we are now in twenty nineteen. We’re past the biased science. All of the evidence now points pretty unequivocally to the fact that MSD doesn’t isn’t shown to cause adverse effects. And we’ve got a country now that loves you, Mommy. Yet we still have MSJ on. On. No, no lists at certain restaurants and other establishments. And I asked you this question as well. 

Do you think that this is a turning point in our American cultural aversion to MSJ G. Do you think people are ready to change their minds? 

Yes. And I’m really happy that this whole emphasis on the mommy flavor of foods is taking place. What creates the mommy flavor is glutamate and Emmis cheese, monosodium glutamate when it’s digested by the body. The glutamate from Emmis G is not treated any differently than the glutamate from the amino acids that we get from glutamic acid. And so I think this emphasis on flavor, particularly mommy, is very important. I think, though, there may be a little barrier there, which is the acceptance and understanding of science. When I said MSDS monosodium glutamate and so chemically, it isn’t treated any differently from glutamic acid and in the metabolism of the body. I think for people who are accepting of science, understanding science, they will understand that. But we also have a society now where they want everything to be, quote, natural, unquote, even though natural does not have a standardized definition. So given that that may be the only area to educating consumers deathy glutamate in M.S. G is the same as glutamate that you get from protein and is handled by the body in exactly the same way. 

Right. I mean, you can say that fact in so many different ways. But that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? 

It is. And I think particularly it’s very nice to see many high profile chefs who are talking about mommy and have gone on the record to say, you know, mommy can be from foods such as aged cheeses and tomatoes and soy bean products or can be from MSJ. So that’s a real step ahead. 

I got to say, after the world, a mommy forum, I’m glad to have learned all of these facts because not only are they interesting, but they’ve made my kitchen more exciting as well. 

And it’s kind of interesting when we talk about Emmis Gee people, that’s obviously the brand terms. Well, it’s not the brand name, but the common name of what we call it. And when I’m talking to friends over the dinner table and they’re asking about M.S. G and I mentioned the term accent, all of a sudden it’s their eyes light up cup of wheat. My mom had a shaker event in my kitchen. Right. So they don’t think of it as M.S. case. They’ve known it as accent. So branding and marketing plays a big difference, too, in terms of acceptance. 

Well, Mary, I couldn’t talk to you for hours, and of course, I’m just a chatty person. It’s so great to be able to talk to you about this because you bring so much perspective. So I want to ask you one more thing. And this has come up in several conversations that I’ve had on comments on some of my work. I wrote the script actually for a video for Sy show on YouTube, all about MSJ. And there were thousands of comments, hundreds of which brought up that people do feel as if they get headaches more regularly when they eat Chinese food or other foods that contain M.S.. Gee. 

So is is it possible? I guess it is possible that it’s the MSJ causing these headaches, but what would you have to say about that? 

Well, it’s an issue that goes all the way back to 1968 with that original letter to the New England Journal of Medicine and the letter writer noted that one of the symptoms he had was a headache. So that has come across to the decades. And when we’ve taken a look at the research and including the FDA doing their research and asking the Federation of American Societies for experimental biology about headaches, that hasn’t been able to be supported. 

As a matter of fact, in January of 2018, the International Headache Society really removed, actually removed MSJ from their list of causative factors for headaches, and they base it on the multitude of blinded studies. Very well done. Studies that show with administration of MSJ, with Erwa without food was not a cossetted factor in headaches. So I think that you have a very well respected scientific organization who is very, very much focused on headaches and helping to alleviate headaches. Say, nope, M.S. G is not a causative factor. So I think we have to wait if the evidence here and I find that very reassuring, that when we look at the weight of the evidence, we look at this studies and we look at the regulations and the recommendations, they all point to Ms. G. Not being a causative factor of headaches and many of the other negative symptoms that have been attributed to this food ingredient. 

I always like to bring up that. For me at least, I want real answers to my problems, even if those answers aren’t as simple or as as easy as one would like. 

And, you know, headaches are a real problem. People have them and and suffer from them, of course. 

I had one just the other day. My husband has migraines. It’s always nice to cross something off the list when you’re trying to tackle all of your own issues in your life and your family’s life and your family’s well-being. 

But thank you again, Mary me for joining me. 

It was my pleasure talking to you today. Thank you very much. 

This has been your host Kavin Senapathy want to help spread the word about point of inquiry. Please share with anyone who loves podcasts and has an interest in science and skepticism. You can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. There you can listen to all of piecewise archived episodes and support the show and CFI as nonprofit advocacy work. 

And remember to subscribe. We’re available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and your favorite podcast app. Thanks again, everyone. And I’ll talk to you again in two weeks. 

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at various outlets including Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, her "Woo Watch" column for Skeptical Inquirer online, and more. When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured. Follow her on Twitter @ksenapathy and Facebook.