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David Chang on MSG


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Interesting talk from David Chang at the MAD symposium about umami and MSG. I been think a lot about this lately because it's so ubiquitous in East and Southeast Asian food. Not since the chili pepper, has an ingredient spread so rapidly through so many food cultures in so short a time period. Here is the link to the 23 minute video. I have many more thoughts on this subject, but no time to post at this moment, perhaps later.

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Interesting talk from David Chang at the MAD symposium about umami and MSG. I been think a lot about this lately because it's so ubiquitous in East and Southeast Asian food. Not since the chili pepper, has an ingredient spread so rapidly through so many food cultures in so short a time period. Here is the link to the 23 minute video. I have many more thoughts on this subject, but no time to post at this moment, perhaps later.

I watched the first 10 minutes, and couldn't watch any more it was so boring.

Non-experts speaking on a subject which requires expertise.

Did this appearance come "from the heart?" Or, was it paid for by someone? It looked pretty darned slapdash and obligatory to me, although I didn't see anything in the first ten minutes that I vehemently disagree with other than emphasis.

My problem with MSG has nothing to do with health reasons; it has everything to do with taking shortcuts and creating "depth of flavor" in a chemistry lab. To the best of my knowledge, umami is a bullshit marketing concept. MSG was "invented" in the early 1900s - what did people do without this "fifth flavor component" for 50,000 years before that?

"Oh, but it's naturally occurring, Don - a derivative of seaweed."

"And HFCS is a naturally occurring derivative of corn. Likewise ethanol."

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I watched the first 10 minutes, and couldn't watch any more it was so boring.

Non-experts speaking on a subject which requires expertise.

Did this appearance come "from the heart?" Or, was it paid for by someone? It looked pretty darned slapdash and obligatory to me, although I didn't see anything in the first ten minutes that I vehemently disagree with other than emphasis.

My problem with MSG has nothing to do with health reasons; it has everything to do with taking shortcuts and creating "depth of flavor" in a chemistry lab. To the best of my knowledge, umami is a bullshit marketing concept. MSG was "invented" in the early 1900s - what did people do without this "fifth flavor component" for 50,000 years before that?

"Oh, but it's naturally occurring, Don - a derivative of seaweed."

"And HFCS is a naturally occurring derivative of corn. Likewise ethanol."

Do you have the same issue with sugar?

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Do you have the same issue with sugar?

Yes and no - I use raw turbinado in my coffee and sometimes (black) tea, and don't remember the last time I've added white sugar to anything. Then again, I'm not a baker.

That said, I'll add processed sugar before aspartame or saccharine.

I can also honestly say that I've never knowingly tasted Splenda in my life.

If something is sweetened with honey, I tend to gravitate towards that (I *love* honey).

Let's also remain focused on the fact that "sweet" really IS one of the four basic taste receptors; it wasn't invented by a marketing agency.

There's an age-old term for umami - it's called "aftertaste" (or, in wine terms, "finish"), and it has nothing to do with MSG aka "Accent Meat Tenderizer."

Certain restaurants I avoid (that other people just go apeshit for) because I suspect them of using MSG to make their beef taste beefier than beef - I've also greatly reduced my visits to Chick-Fil-A, not because of political issues, but because I now suspect that they go heavy on the MSG.

I just don't need all the chemical additives in my life, and if I can avoid them (or, more realistically, minimize them), I will.

Whenever I see fruit flies in restaurants, I view that as a positive sign because they're probably limiting the use of insecticides.

Chang began talking about "Doritos" as some sort of pro-MSG example, and I honestly couldn't believe what I was hearing.

I'm not militant about this, but I actively choose to avoid Wal-Mart and pay more at locally owned stores, even for the exact same product.

People might read this and think that I'm mixing different issues, but I'm really not.

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Yes and no - I use raw turbinado in my coffee and sometimes (black) tea, and don't remember the last time I've added white sugar to anything. Then again, I'm not a baker.

That said, I'll add processed sugar before aspartame or saccharine.

I can also honestly say that I've never knowingly tasted Splenda in my life.

If something is sweetened with honey, I tend to gravitate towards that (I *love* honey).

Let's also remain focused on the fact that "sweet" really IS one of the four basic taste receptors; it wasn't invented by a marketing agency.

There's an age-old term for umami - it's called "aftertaste" (or, in wine terms, "finish"), and it has nothing to do with MSG aka "Accent Meat Tenderizer."

Certain restaurants I avoid (that other people just go apeshit for) because I suspect them of using MSG to make their beef taste beefier than beef - I've also greatly reduced my visits to Chick-Fil-A, not because of political issues, but because I now suspect that they go heavy on the MSG.

I just don't need all the chemical additives in my life, and if I can avoid them (or, more realistically, minimize them), I will.

Whenever I see fruit flies in restaurants, I view that as a positive sign because they're probably limiting the use of insecticides.

Chang began talking about "Doritos" as some sort of pro-MSG example, and I honestly couldn't believe what I was hearing.

I'm not militant about this, but I actively choose to avoid Wal-Mart and pay more at locally owned stores, even for the exact same product.

People might read this and think that I'm mixing different issues, but I'm really not.

Calling it a chemical additive is misleading though. Table Salt, MSG, Sugar, Citric Acid are all essentially the same thing, processed raw ingredients distilled into a single thing and used to flavor food. It's odd to me that you pick on MSG calling it marketing gimmick, even though there's actual science that says that it's not.

I don't see the difference of adding other seasonings and MSG. You're fine with salt being added, sugar being added, but somehow MSG is unnatural and shows a lack of skill in the kitchen?

http://www.ncbi.nlm....pubmed/19686108

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Calling it a chemical additive is misleading though. Table Salt, MSG, Sugar, Citric Acid are all essentially the same thing, processed raw ingredients distilled into a single thing and used to flavor food. It's odd to me that you pick on MSG calling it marketing gimmick, even though there's actual science that says that it's not.

I don't see the difference of adding other seasonings and MSG. You're fine with salt being added, sugar being added, but somehow MSG is unnatural and shows a lack of skill in the kitchen?

http://www.ncbi.nlm....pubmed/19686108

We've had this discussion before in this thread.

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We've had this discussion before in this thread.

Yes and your reasoning then didn't make sense either. You're opinion isn't based on facts or science. You're trying to vilify and draw comparisons to HFCS when it doesn't make any sense to. Your point is that adding MSG is a hack move, but somehow adding salt, citric acid, or sugar isn't. That doesn't make sense.

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Yes and your reasoning then didn't make sense either. You're opinion isn't based on facts or science. You're trying to vilify and draw comparisons to HFCS when it doesn't make any sense to. Your point is that adding MSG is a hack move, but somehow adding salt, citric acid, or sugar isn't. That doesn't make sense.

Would you please show me where I said where adding salt, citric acid, or sugar isn't?

Go ahead and link to the post where I said that, please.

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Would you please show me where I said where adding salt, citric acid, or sugar isn't?

Go ahead and link to the post where I said that, please.

I can't because you've ignored the posts that brought it up in the past.

Ok, so your point is that adding any season/additive is a hack move?

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And I said that ... where, exactly?

"My problem with MSG has nothing to do with health reasons; it has everything to do with taking shortcuts and creating "depth of flavor" in a chemistry lab. To the best of my knowledge, umami is a bullshit marketing concept. MSG was "invented" in the early 1900s - what did people do without this "fifth flavor component" for 50,000 years before that?"

Taking shortcuts==hack move.

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"My problem with MSG has nothing to do with health reasons; it has everything to do with taking shortcuts and creating "depth of flavor" in a chemistry lab. To the best of my knowledge, umami is a bullshit marketing concept. MSG was "invented" in the early 1900s - what did people do without this "fifth flavor component" for 50,000 years before that?"

Taking shortcuts==hack move.

I stand behind my statement. In fact, I've just re-read it five times and don't see anything about it I'd change or retract.

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I stand behind my statement. In fact, I've just re-read it five times and don't see anything about it I'd change or retract.

Ignoring the part that it's been scientifically proven to not be a marketing concept, why is it different from salt/citric acid/sugar?

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Ignoring the part that it's been scientifically proven to not be a marketing concept, why is it different from salt/citric acid/sugar?

It has not been scientifically proven to be much of anything. I can show you studies that say caffeine is good for you, and studies that say caffeine is bad for you.

The body naturally craves salt.

The body naturally craves sugar.

The body does not naturally crave umami.

During the video, David Chang mentioned something about MSG being the most vilified ingredient in western culture. I propose that both salt and sugar are several orders of magnitude (*) more vilified than MSG. Also, given the population of China, etc., MSG has got to be one of the most pervasive additives in the world. Before I first started mentioning the preponderance of MSG a few years ago, there wasn't much discussion of it at all on internet food boards - I'm more than happy to be party responsible for the "vilification" of flavor-enhancing additives such as this, and if the discussion turns against the gross overuse of heavily processed salt and sugar, then so much the better - I assure you I've railed against "industrial food," "chain restaurants," and their arsenals of refined carbohydrates and chemically manufactured "flavors" more than I've railed against MSG as a stand-alone villain.

(*) Each order of magnitude is "times 10." So yes, I'm saying that salt and sugar are 1,000, 10,000, perhaps 100,000 times more vilified than MSG. Ever heard of high blood pressure and type two diabetes? Guess what they're strongly linked to. Let's not even mention alcohol.

I suspect this is going to get back to Chang, so let it be said that I have no strong disagreements with what I heard - I'd be curious to know who paid for the presentation, however.

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It has not been scientifically proven to be much of anything. I can show you studies that say caffeine is good for you, and studies that say caffeine is bad for you.

The body naturally craves salt.

The body naturally craves sugar.

The body does not naturally crave umami.

During the video, David Chang mentioned something about MSG being the most vilified ingredient in western culture. I propose that both salt and sugar are several orders of magnitude (*) more vilified than MSG. Also, given the population of China, etc., MSG has got to be one of the most pervasive additives in the word. Before I first started mentioning the preponderance of MSG a few years ago, there wasn't much discussion of it at all on internet food boards - I'm more than happy to be party responsible for the "vilification" of flavor-enhancing additives such as this, and if the discussion turns against the gross overuse of heavily processed salt and sugar, then so much the better - I assure you I've railed against "industrial food," "chain restaurants," and their arsenals of refined carbohydrates and chemically manufactured "flavors" more than I've railed against MSG as a stand-alone villain.

(*) Each order of magnitude is "times 10." So yes, I'm saying that salt and sugar are 1,000, 10,000, perhaps 100,000 times more vilified than MSG. Ever heard of high blood pressure and type two diabetes? Guess what they're strongly linked to.

There are taste receptors for umami. That's a proven scientific fact. If not, then please find me the studies that prove otherwise.

While I appreciate the reply, you didn't actually address my question. So is your issue the use or the overuse of MSG? You don't seem to be talking at all about how it can be used responsibly something you clearly think can be done with other food additives like salt, sugar and citric acid. You don't have people talking about how they're allergic to salt or sugar. Faking headaches because they think someone slipped a bunch of table salt in their fried rice. You boycott Chick-fil-A because of MSG, not the 1400 MG of sodium in a single sandwich. The MSG in the sandwich has no negative effects on the body, but 1400MG which is about half the daily recommended amount. Your vilification seems to be misguided and misplaced.

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There are taste receptors for umami. That's a proven scientific fact. If not, then please find me the studies that prove otherwise.

While I appreciate the reply, you didn't actually address my question. So is your issue the use or the overuse of MSG? You don't seem to be talking at all about how it can be used responsibly something you clearly think can be done with other food additives like salt, sugar and citric acid. You don't have people talking about how they're allergic to salt or sugar. Faking headaches because they think someone slipped a bunch of table salt in their fried rice. You boycott Chick-fil-A because of MSG, not the 1400 MG of sodium in a single sandwich. The MSG in the sandwich has no negative effects on the body, but 1400MG which is about half the daily recommended amount. Your vilification seems to be misguided and misplaced.

I do appreciate the discussion, but I'm absolutely not going to spend my Friday afternoon digging up studies (btw, you're asking me to prove the negative). That said, I'd like to know your definition of umami - an exact, precise definition. Mine is "aftertaste" or "finish" because I don't buy that there's anything more to it than that, and I do not believe that anything fundamental to basic human cravings did not exist before the early 1900s, orgasmatron notwithstanding.

I don't boycott Chick-fil-A because of MSG (or anything else, for that matter), although my statement above could certainly lead someone to think I do. It was my suspicion of MSG that drew my attention to their ingredients list (where I still can't find anything about it, one way or the other), and I didn't like what I saw - I simply don't want all of these ingredients, whether they're MSG, 1400 mg of sodium, crappy processed bun, or, for that matter, inhumanely raised chickens. If I'm hungry on a rural interstate, I'll grab a sandwich and a waffle fries before I get a fast-food burger, but that's about as far as I'll go. To answer your first question specifically: overuse (*).

You're not finding my answers satisfying because quite frankly, I'm really not saying anything of great strength, even though you keep trying to wring something out of me.

(*) I avoid margarine at all costs, and I cannot think of one single exception, but I'll happily dip my sashimi in soy sauce. And, for whatever it's worth, I've probably had more MSG this week than you have.

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I do appreciate the discussion, but I'm absolutely not going to spend my Friday afternoon digging up studies (btw, you're asking me to prove the negative). That said, I'd like to know your definition of umami - an exact, precise definition. Mine is "aftertaste" or "finish" because I don't buy that there's anything more to it than that, and I do not believe that anything fundamental to basic human cravings did not exist before the early 1900s, orgasmatron notwithstanding.

I don't boycott Chick-fil-A because of MSG (or anything else, for that matter), although my statement above could certainly lead someone to think I do. It was my suspicion of MSG that drew my attention to their ingredients list (where I still can't find anything about it, one way or the other), and I didn't like what I saw - I simply don't want all of these ingredients, whether they're MSG, 1400 mg of sodium, crappy processed bun, or, for that matter, inhumanely raised chickens. If I'm hungry on a rural interstate, I'll grab a sandwich and a waffle fries before I get a fast-food burger, but that's about as far as I'll go. To answer your first question specifically: overuse (*).

You're not finding my answers satisfying because quite frankly, I'm really not saying anything of great strength, even though you keep trying to wring something out of me.

(*) I avoid margarine at all costs, and I cannot think of one single exception, but I'll happily dip my sashimi in soy sauce. And, for whatever it's worth, I've probably had more MSG this week than you have.

You made statements about studies could be shown on both side about caffeine. That lead me to believe that you were saying that there was something supporting your opinion that there are no taste receptors for umami. I already posted one for my opinion, I just figured that since you keep banging this drum that you would have based your opinion on something.

How do you precisely describe sweet, bitter, sour, or salty? I can point to examples, but can't give you a definition of those, umami is no different. It's use is just as valid as salt, sugar, or citric acid.

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You made statements about studies could be shown on both side about caffeine. That lead me to believe that you were saying that there was something supporting your opinion that there are no taste receptors for umami. I already posted one for my opinion, I just figured that since you keep banging this drum that you would have based your opinion on something.

How do you precisely describe sweet, bitter, sour, or salty? I can point to examples, but can't give you a definition of those, umami is no different. It's use is just as valid as salt, sugar, or citric acid.

Please don't ask me to prove or disprove something unless you can properly define what it is you need me to prove or disprove.

Also, for, I think, the third time ... where, exactly, did I say "there are no taste receptors for umami?"

This has grown tiresome, truly.

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Please don't ask me to prove or disprove something unless you can properly define what it is you need me to prove or disprove.

Also, for, I think, the third time ... where, exactly, did I say "there are no taste receptors for umami?"

This has grown tiresome, truly.

I'm asking you to support your opinion. You make statements like "Let's also remain focused on the fact that "sweet" really IS one of the four basic taste receptors;" and " It has not been scientifically proven to be much of anything." but then when asked to prove that there are 4 and not 5 taste receptors you attempt to distract and refuse to admit that you're wrong. So please, prove how there are only four basic taste receptors when commonly accepted science says there are 5?

http://www.livescien...h-debunked.html

Now, with all that being said, what exactly is your problem with adding MSG to food and how is it different for any other additive like salt/citric acid/sugar? (which is like the 5th time since you like keep count but you still haven't answered)

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My problem with MSG has nothing to do with health reasons; it has everything to do with taking shortcuts and creating "depth of flavor" in a chemistry lab. To the best of my knowledge, umami is a bullshit marketing concept. MSG was "invented" in the early 1900s - what did people do without this "fifth flavor component" for 50,000 years before that?

The body naturally craves salt.

The body naturally craves sugar.

The body does not naturally crave umami.

Sorry, wrong.

Here's my take.

The human mouth is currently known to have five taste receptors. Why does it have them? What are they there for -- what is their role in the really big picture, i.e. the evolution of the species? Because when you think about it, evolution is why we have everything we have.

Those receptors have a clear evolutionary purpose, and without them our ancestors, as they crawled out of the ooze, would not have survived, or at least not developed into the higher-level organisms such as we. Three of them lead us (and in varying ways other high-level species) to seek out and ingest matter that provides our mammalian bodies with what they must have to grow and maintain themselves, specifically salt which is required for all sorts of cellular functions, sweet substances for energy, also required for cellular functions, and savoriness (umami from glutamates which are tightly associated with protein, also necessary for our cellular functions and growth). Basically if, and only if, one ingests enough organic stuff that has these three qualities, one will pretty much be getting a diet that makes it possible for the body to live, grow and, eventually, reproduce, i.e. evolve. It was not always easy to get such a diet.

Bitter and sour are just as necessary but work in the opposite way. They typically are associated with things that will harm a higher-level living creature, i.e. poisons. Not a one-to-one relationship of course (as I chow down on pickled herring), but workable from the evolutionary standpoint -- the organism that avoids ingesting bitter and sour organic matter will have a better shot at survival and evolving into complex creatures like mammals and birds and us.

So yes, like salt and sweets, the body does indeed crave umami, and for a good reason. It's just taken us a little longer to connect the dots. And, as an aside, umami is certainly more than an "aftertaste" or "finish"-- it's a basic aspect of flavor bound up with our food preferences, just like saltiness and sweetness.

And where does johnny-come-lately MSG fit in to all this?

All the above served us and our ancestors well for several million years. However, in the last 200 or so, a fraction of a second on the evolutionary clock, things have gotten turned upside down. Now, with technology, we don't need these taste preferences to help us successfully seek out an evolutionarily-adequate diet; adequate food can be had everywhere in great quantities with little effort. But we still crave these flavors that are hard-wired into us, and with the brakes off it has come to be all about excess.

Side comment: This very forum is a symptom of the excess, and I suppose we are all guilty participants to one degree or another. But I digress.

As I see it, MSG is just another form of glutamate, and really no different from other forms that occur "naturally." In the big picture it's not needed, and the I'm sure human race would be just fine if it had never been synthesized. But the scientific evidence so far is pretty clear that it is not inherently harmful either. And, like salt and sugar, It can be used to make things taste better. Umami, one minor form of which is found in MSG, is certainly not just a bullshit marketing concept -- it really does explain why certain things taste better. Adding MSG is one way to increase umami and enhance flavor. Yes, cheaply and easily. We cooks do the same and similar with a wide variety of "chemicals" of varying degrees of "naturalness." Whether you agree that MSG is a good thing, or that it would better add umami in some other way, or that it's not necessary at all, is up to you. Me, I'm a fish sauce guy (and I'm happy to report that I finally found Red Boat yesterday and am anxious to try it).

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I do appreciate the discussion, but I'm absolutely not going to spend my Friday afternoon digging up studies (btw, you're asking me to prove the negative). That said, I'd like to know your definition of umami - an exact, precise definition. Mine is "aftertaste" or "finish" because I don't buy that there's anything more to it than that, and I do not believe that anything fundamental to basic human cravings did not exist before the early 1900s, orgasmatron notwithstanding.

Okay, I've done some digging, and answered my own request. To the best that I can tell, the scientific definition of umami is: "the taste of C5H9NO4: glutamic acid."

Which, in turn, makes this sentence incorrect:

There's an age-old term for umami - it's called "aftertaste" (or, in wine terms, "finish"), and it has nothing to do with MSG aka "Accent Meat Tenderizer."

Sorry, wrong.

Here's my take.

The human mouth is currently known to have five taste receptors.

John, from the best that I can tell, this "fifth taste receptor" wasn't discovered until the year 2000, and I'm still trying to figure out what, exactly, a "taste receptor" is. I'm not sure why I typed this sentence they way I did:

Let's also remain focused on the fact that "sweet" really IS one of the four basic taste receptors; it wasn't invented by a marketing agency.

What I was trying to say is that we crave sugar, at a cellular level. When Shackleton's crew was rescued, they were asked what it was they wanted to eat after so many months surviving on nothing but seal hooch. To a man, they said, "Pastry." They were literally craving sweetness.

In terms of the "basic tastes," I'm not so sure I buy that there are only four OR five (which is why I want to know more about this study performed in 2000). The tongue map, for example, went unquestioned for generations; why shouldn't people be skeptical about this mysterious 10-year-old "confirmation" of umami, most readily translated as "deliciousness?" Apparently, every taste bud has the ability to taste glutamic acid. But I wonder what else can be tasted. Already, people are postulating the existence of "taste receptors" for the flavors "fat", "metallic," and "piquance" - that would make 6, 7, and 8. And just because there are taste receptors for something does not mean you crave it - has anyone ever craved something that tasted metallic, for example? What explains the unique taste of DRC wines? Umami? Or, something else?

I would very much like to know who funded the study in 2000. Also, what it was, exactly, that they were looking for. Was it funded by a manufacturer of MSG? Were they looking exclusively for the existence of a taste receptor for glutamic acid, or were they searching for any old taste receptor that stood out the most? If they truly confirmed the existence of a "fifth taste" which completely overturned a century or more of scientific wisdom, then that's pretty darned heady stuff - where's the Nobel prize?

If every taste bud can taste glutamic acid, then why can't they taste 5,000 other tastes as well? What if there's a continuum of human tastes, and not such a limited number? Why 5 and not 5,000,000? What is responsible for the taste of garlic, for example? Why do you taste raw onions hours after you eat them?

Maybe the manufacturers of garlic should fund a study searching for a garlic taste receptor, and if they find it, declare it as "the sixth fundamental taste." Umami seems to encompass things such as tomatoes, asparagus, fish, seaweed, Parmesan cheese, green tea, and breast milk - that's a pretty darned wide array of flavors, and I can honestly say that I've never craved asparagus or seaweed in my life.

Doesn't it seem odd that there's this one catch-all "taste" that is responsible for such a diversity of foods? Doesn't it seem sketchy that the man who discovered umami also took out the original patent on MSG?

All of this seems just a little too convenient, and dare I say "simplified," to accept without some skepticism.

PS - I had Yamasa soy sauce with my sushi tonight at Kotobuki. No MSG, and I wouldn't have even known the difference. Then again, with an annual production of 3,000,000,000 (three billion) pounds per year of MSG - which is nearly half a pound for every living person on the planet - they probably couldn't care less. Think there's some money at stake here?

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I won't even weigh in on MSG (since I probably only have it included in infrequent meals out), but when I tried to restrict my diet recently, the most difficult ingredient to give up was soy- much more difficult than sugar or artificial sweeteners for me. I love sour, & still could use citrus & vinegar, but cutting out soy (& also excess sodium) was horrible for me, I still could add sea salt to lots of cooked veggies, but found it hard to give up soy- cheated by using small amounts of tamari, gluten-free soy, but was aware that that was still not allowed, & yes, I know that everything is allowable in moderation, but this was just a test, to see if I could do it...I'm not even going to touch on alcohol...on the plus side, I now drink my coffee, w/ only a spoonful of coconut cream, & no added sweetener...

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from the best that I can tell, this "fifth taste receptor" wasn't discovered until the year 2000

In 1992 I was in culinary school and one of the classes was "oriental kitchen"

Shirley Cheng, the very knowledgeable Chinese instructor informed us that in China, unlike the West, there are five flavors.

So this was a full 8 yrs. before 2000.

Of course she called the five tastes:

Sweet

Sour

Salty

Bitter

Fresh

I only wonder if that means there are now 6 or still 5.

:blink:

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I would very much like to know who funded the study in 2000. Also, what it was, exactly, that they were looking for. Was it funded by a manufacturer of MSG? Were they looking exclusively for the existence of a taste receptor for glutamic acid, or were they searching for any old taste receptor that stood out the most? If they truly confirmed the existence of a "fifth taste" which completely overturned a century or more of scientific wisdom, then that's pretty darned heady stuff - where's the Nobel prize?

Don

The key work on the subject was carried out under the auspices of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the funding source, by Charles Zuker, an HHMI investigator. I doubt any industry money was at the table. HHMI doesn't work that way AFAIK. They have plenty of money to spread around (being among other things "heirs" to the Direct TV fortune you might say). Here are two links that describe the work and address many of the questions you raised:

http://www.hhmi.org/news/zuker3.html

http://www.hhmi.org/news/zuker5.html

Basically, Zuker proved that an umami receptor exists (like other receptors), thus proving that an umami taste exists, and also proved that each flavor has its own receptors. Receptors don't taste multiple compounds, but they do share a common neural pathway to the brain. End of biology lesson.

HHMI is a very interesting organization, that few have even heard of unless they watch NOVA on PBS -- they have one of the largest endowments on the planet, and use it to fund all sorts of biomedical research that is mostly carried out by their full-time investigators who typically are also on the faculty of all the prestigious universities you can think of. HHMI gives each of them about $1 million per year and turns them loose to research stuff. Since you mentioned Nobel Prizes, note that over the years 15 HHMI investigators have indeed won Nobels. Heady stuff indeed!

[Full disclosure -- my sweet bride used to be on the staff of HHMI (in the travel group, sending these guys to conferences all over the globe), and still would be if I hadn't dragged her, kicking and screaming, to this mountain in North Carolina. By far the best job she ever had.]

Here's another HHMI link that goes to the connection between taste receptors and successful evolution, and mentions the "fat" taste (number 6?) as well.

http://www.askascien...20120104-4.html

I could link much more, but the bottom line is that umami is real, not an invention of MSG manufacturers or Madison Avenue.

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In 1992 I was in culinary school and one of the classes was "oriental kitchen"

Shirley Cheng, the very knowledgeable Chinese instructor informed us that in China, unlike the West, there are five flavors.

So this was a full 8 yrs. before 2000.

Of course she called the five tastes:

Sweet

Sour

Salty

Bitter

Fresh

I only wonder if that means there are now 6 or still 5.

:blink:

I believe it's still the same five. The second symbol in fresh is the same as for umami. But for older generations of Chinese, they don't know to translate the word into English. My parents have always described it as the characteristic that makes food tasty.

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I spent way too much time on this last weekend (many hours spent trying to bring myself up to speed, before giving up and realizing that it would takes months, if not years, if I were to address this with an adequate degree of scientific expertise - it is a tremendously complex subject, and there are no shortcuts to its mastery).

One of the things I did was to throw the issue out to members of a private wine email list that I co-administer. These folks are some of the greatest wine experts in the world (some of our members can claim MWs and PhDs in the sciences) - they are a brilliant group, and more often than not, we achieve synergy in complex issues (no doubt due to my moderation skills). :)

With their permission (after my assurance of anonymity), here are a couple of their responses which came before the discussion devolved into poking fun at Luca Turin, the bête-noire of Richard Axel (I'm including these not to make any type of "point," but simply to enrich the discussion):

Don,

I am not sure what you are looking for here. I have been living and working with an awareness of, understanding of and usage of umami taste for so long, that I am not sure where to start – it feels a bit like I have just been asked to verify and explain ‘bitter’ for example.

One thing that might help with clarifying some thought around it, if I may, is to comment on some of the language used in the thread below: it is important to be clear that ‘umami’ is not ‘MSG’ (i.e. not the same as), a confusion I have heard others stumble into. This would be as tempting but as confusing as saying ‘sweet’ is ‘sugar’, or ‘sour’ is ‘lemon juice’.

Lemon juice, sugar or MSG are physical things, or chemical compounds if you prefer; whereas sweet, sour, or umami are labels that are useful to describe what we experience, the responses that take place in our brains, when certain physical things stimulate specific sensory receptors. In the case of sweet, sour or umami these sensory responses are in the category of ‘chemical senses’ that we refer to as ‘taste’ sensations.

Glucose is one thing that triggers the response we label ‘sweet’; tartaric acid is one thing that triggers the response we label ‘sour’; MSG is one thing that triggers the response that we label ‘umami’.

…that there are 5 which includes umami, i.e., glutamic acid (NB - why isn't this either an "acid" or a "salt?")

Beyond the point above that umami does-not-equal glutamic acid, your question in parenthesis, I think might be answered by suggesting that glutamic acid is the acid form (an amino acid), and a base or salt form of this is monosodium glutamate (a little out of my depth here on the chemistry, but I believe that is along the right lines). However, important to remember that just because something is acidic or basic, does not mean that it triggers the tastes of sour or salty.

I'm having a hard time "swallowing" the "5 and only 5" position - it's just too convenient for this chemical company-cum-marketing giant.

I think many sensory scientists would agree here: I believe many are open to the possibility that there are other tastes, for example ‘metallic’ ; they just haven’t been properly investigated or proven.

the best layman's definition they can come up with is "deliciousness."

It would be hard to come up with a ‘layman’s term to describe ‘bitter’ or ‘sour’ if they were not fairly well established in popular awareness. Even the better known tastes are hard to describe. When discussing wine to novices, for example, it is very difficult to explain to them exactly what we mean by acid, bitter, sweet.

‘deliciousness’, by the way, is not a term that I like to use for umami. It can perhaps give people an idea of what we are talking about; but the word is to most people fairly subjective, and implies that they like something. Umami taste will be triggered by things high in the amino acids that trigger umami taste, whether or not somebody likes it. If somebody finds parmesan cheese unpleasant, it will not be delicious to them, but it will still create high umami taste; in the same way, we often think of ‘sweet’ as inherently appealing, and instinctively I suspect it is; but there are probably still some sweet things that you don’t like; but the fact that somebody doesn’t like something with sugars in it, for example cheap white zinfandel, doesn’t mean it doesn’t trigger sweet taste.

And, I might add, that if you go back to the Japanese etymology of ‘umami’ it is just as confusing; it often leads people to describe it, incorrectly, as something like ‘a general overall good feeling or harmony’ – as misleading as ‘deliciousness’.

However, as used by sensory scientists, umami is a good clean term to describe a taste sensation.

My definition of umami has always been "aftertaste" (food) or "finish" (wine) even though I know this is an oversimplification.

If I may, I think this definition misses an understanding of what umami taste is. It happens immediately, at the speed of one’s neural pathway, as soon as the amino acids hit one’s tongue.

I've been contending that MSG is nothing more than a chemically processed food additive

I believe you are correct about this. It is an artificially synthesized compound, that helps create the same taste sensation as many naturally occurring amino acids, such as glutamic acid. But, to compare, the fact that High Fructose Corn Syrup is a chemically processed food additive does not mean that ‘sweet taste’ is a marketing fiction. One could go further and point out that chemicals like aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are definitely chemically processed food additives, which tend to trigger the sensory response of ‘sweet’ in many people, but do not disprove the existence of ‘sweet’ as a taste.

…and most definitely a shortcut to make "beef taste beefier" in lieu of quality beef or good cooking technique.

Agreed, MSG is a food additive sold to increase the taste of umami in food that does not inherently have enough of the amino acids to naturally produce umami taste. In a similar way to how High Fructose Corn Syrup or Aspartame are added to foods that do not have enough natural sweetness, to make them taste sweet. I suspect everyone on twl buys good ingredients, cooks up good stocks, and has enough technique to create foods high in umami without adding MSG. And in the same way that adding HFCS or Aspartame produces a ‘sweet’ taste that many would consider less fine than natural sugars, many feel that there is an unpleasant side to MSG, compared to naturally occurring sources of umami taste.

Statements such as, "Think of the delicious quality you get when a great dish remains on your palate" will not be nearly enough for my purposes.

I agree. I think this misses the point: umami is a primary taste sensation. Any ‘lingering’ effect is no more helpful to describing it than pointing out the lingering sweetness after eating some very sweet things, or the lingering bitterness after eating very bitter things, or the lingering saltiness after eating very salty things. If you haven’t learnt what the taste is, you won’t relate to it.

I am afraid I don’t have any scientific references to hand right now (spending the night in the transfer lounge in Doha). But, I believe there has been good research done in the States, at Monell for example, not just in Japan. I believe that umami is better understood by science than some other tastes; bitter, for example, seems very hard to reach concensus on, despite the fact that people are taught the idea at school.

I think suggestion about umami taste being useful to survival are simple anthropological observations. Sweet and umami taste are inherently appealing, and they tend to be indicators of ‘safe’, ‘ripe’, ‘nutritious’ – as a hunter gatherer they might help guide you ripe fruit, non-toxic foods, protein rich foods, i.e. to a safe, nutritious diet. (In modern societies they are arguably no longer useful, and lead to obesity, as many people still seem to have these built-in cravings for sweet and nutritious food, more than is necessary.)

On the other hand, our distant ancestors were guided away from unripe toxic foods by being wary of bitter and and sour: bitter and acidic taste are inherently unappealing: most children and many adults shy away from bitter and sour things, hence, once again the proliferation of processed foods with sweet or umami inducing additives to mask bitter and sour tastes. Most of us on twl have learnt to re-train our instinctive reactions, to enjoy acid and to some (varying) extent bitter.

I hope this aids in your discussion!

Good summary.

A couple of minor addenda.

MSG and glutamic acid both give the same stuff when dissolved at mouth pH, so the origin doesn’t really matter. MSG is a convenient crystalline form.

Ajinomoto has no particular proprietary position in MSG, those discoveries are very old.

And most cultures have equivalents of the seaweed and fish broths that contain lots of glutamate (and other amino acids, and mononucleotides, and other things that probably activate the umami receptor proteins on your tongue). Think SE Asian fish sauces, Roman garum, modern canned anchovies, and even Worcestershire sauce. Or dried mushrooms. Or , or, or….

Sorry, lots of time on the road lately.

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Of course she called the five tastes:

Sweet

Sour

Salty

Bitter

Fresh

When Chinese say "fresh," it's really depth of flavor from bringing out the flavor of the ingredients. Using MSG is a shortcut to fresh. My mom has said since I was a kid that a good chef doesn't need MSG - that would be the 70s, when I was a wee kid.

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Don -- a lot of useful info from your wine buddies up there.

To me, describing umami as "fresh" seems a bit strange -- it's more the opposite. Foods highest in natural umami are very frequently foods that have been aged, fermented, dried, preserved, and so on. Examples are blue and hard cheeses, fish sauce and soy sauce, dry aged beef, dried mushrooms (shiitake, porcini), sun-dried and concentrated tomatoes, cured meats, kombu, bonito flakes, green tea, sardines, and others, above all anchovies. It is not by accident that small quantities of such foods are favorites as pizza toppers -- think concentrated tomatoes, mushrooms, pepperoni, anchovies, parmesan cheese. Pizza is one of the highest umami dishes out there, and to me that doubtless explains why it has become so popular.

Of course many fresh foods are already high in umami, including most seafood, mushrooms, tomatoes, beef, and many others, but with these further processing such as drying and aging frequently increases the umami, which I imagine helps to explain why those steps are so often undertaken.

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Also, what it was, exactly, that they were looking for. Was it funded by a manufacturer of MSG? Were they looking exclusively for the existence of a taste receptor for glutamic acid, or were they searching for any old taste receptor that stood out the most? If they truly confirmed the existence of a "fifth taste" which completely overturned a century or more of scientific wisdom, then that's pretty darned heady stuff - where's the Nobel prize?

Here it is!! Just announced this morning.

In fairness, these particular guys weren't studying umami per se, but protein receptors in general throughout the body, but specifically including receptors for tastes as noted in the article. It wasn't Zucker (who I mentioned above, the one that actually did prove the existence of the umami receptor) that was awarded the prize, but Lefkowitz who is a colleague and collaborator -- they are both investigators at HHMI. As an aside, this raises HHMI's total of Nobel prizes to 16 over the years.

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I would bet $10,000 at 10-to-1 odds that the Pad Gra Prow Eggplant I had for dinner tonight was loaded with MSG. How do I know? Because I'm waterlogged, but cannot quench my thirst despite having had almost two liters of water; and also because I feel like I went to the dentist and had novocaine.

Parmigiano-Reggiano my eye; MSG crystals are ferret shit, as surely as the sun shines.

"But David Chang says tha..."

"He's wrong."

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I would bet $10,000 at 10-to-1 odds that the Pad Gra Prow Eggplant I had for dinner tonight was loaded with MSG. How do I know? Because I'm waterlogged, but cannot quench my thirst despite having had almost two liters of water; and also because I feel like I went to the dentist and had novocaine.

Parmigiano-Reggiano my eye; MSG crystals are ferret shit, as surely as the sun shines.

"But David Chang says tha..."

"He's wrong."

Well, we've had extensive discussion about this already in this thread, but apparently no change of minds or hearts.

The fact remains that, to my knowledge, there has never been a correctly-designed (i.e. double blind etc) test that has shown that even people who absolutely believe they are affected by MSG can actually tell, or show any effect, when they have ingested it (aside from making things taste better).

Here's some comment from the Mythbuster guys on the subject; I don't know how scientifically reliable their stuff is, but in this case at least they're right.

Here are the results of a far more scientifically rigorous study that reached the same conclusion.  Here is meta-analysis that reached the same conclusion.

Bottom line remains the same.  There is no proof, just anecdotes.  Not valid.  Put more bluntly, it's a myth.  Chang is right.

I feel like I've become the board's bète noire on this topic! (others too, no doubt).

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Perceptions of MSG impact remind me of the power of the placebo effect.

Time and time again, those same carefully constructed studies demonstrate the ability of humans to let the impact of their beliefs override what science says should not work.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Consider the possibility that we could work with the placebo effect in ethical ways to improve human outcomes.

Yes, in comes The Matrix red pill thinking, and the "if they only feel better but aren't better is that better" conversation.  But at least it's an open and idea-generating dialogue.  This is important to the conversation around MSG because if people believe it hurts them, and they feel it hurt them every time they expose themselves to certain foods, why would beating them in the head with a tome of double-blind peer-reviewed studies cause them to stop their belief?

(new topic thread alert)

(for additional thinking see)

(seth godin's rough draft ebooklet)

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Perceptions of MSG impact remind me of the power of the placebo effect.

Time and time again, those same carefully constructed studies demonstrate the ability of humans to let the impact of their beliefs override what science says should not work.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Consider the possibility that we could work with the placebo effect in ethical ways to improve human outcomes.

Yes, in comes The Matrix red pill thinking, and the "if they only feel better but aren't better is that better" conversation.  But at least it's an open and idea-generating dialogue.  This is important to the conversation around MSG because if people believe it hurts them, and they feel it hurt them every time they expose themselves to certain foods, why would beating them in the head with a tome of double-blind peer-reviewed studies cause them to stop their belief? 

(new topic thread alert)

(for additional thinking see)

(seth godin's rough draft ebooklet)

It may not stop them, but the issue is one of understanding scientific principles, and, while MSG is a relatively innocuous example, something like, say, immunization of children, is not.  In this case, the placebo effect is also irrelevant.  So the "I believe it, it must be true" issue, or something akin to the "20 uses of cider vinegar" posts I see on Facebook (it cures cancer, toenail fungus, and promotes world peace, apparently), are symptomatic of a larger problem with scientific literacy, at least in my mind.

To keep this on topic, I'll add the edit that, when I was 12, I broke out in hives after eating Chinese takeout.  This occurred before I knew anything about MSG, or hives, for that matter.  It was just damned itchy, and it took a good dose of Benadryl to stop it.  My Mom blamed MSG, but I've never had it happen again, and I'm sure I've been served MSG again.  Who knows.

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Bottom line remains the same.  There is no proof, just anecdotes.  Not valid.  Put more bluntly, it's a myth.  Chang is right.

The vast majority of things in this world haven't been "proven," or even studied seriously, and anecdotal evidence is quite often all there is to go on - in many, many different areas of life. If you think for a moment I conjured up this unceasing thirst and numbness because of some sort of "placebo effect," you're, well, you're entitled to your opinion. Now, I will say that it could have been due to something other than large quantities of MSG (I eat small quantities of MSG all the time) - that, I acknowledge. But your blind certainty (*) is like walking into a doctor, saying, "I'm really hurting," and the doctor saying, "It's all in your head" (which also happens all the time - because nothing can be proven or demonstrated - and the doctors are almost always wrong). Note that it's also possible that MSG doesn't affect everyone in the same way, similar to peanuts or bee stings or sugar. Or, it could be MSG coupled with another factor - an elevated temperature, or in combination with some other ingredient. I'd love to see the doctor who says, "It's all in your head" when someone's air tract has closed off.

(*) Blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up. - David Foster Wallace

I would bet your Pad Gra Prow Eggplant was completely devoid of Gra Prow.

 

Quite possible - I wasn't even paying attention to what I was eating (other than noticing that the beef had begun to turn), and I'm not sure I'd recognize "real" Thai holy basil if I was hit over the head with it. Curious what makes you say this, however.

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The vast majority of things in this world haven't been "proven," or even studied seriously, and anecdotal evidence is quite often all there is to go on - in many, many different areas of life. If you think for a moment I conjured up this unceasing thirst and numbness because of some sort of "placebo effect," you're, well, you're entitled to your opinion. Now, I will say that it could have been due to something other than large quantities of MSG (I eat small quantities of MSG all the time) - that, I acknowledge. But your blind certainty (*) is like walking into a doctor, saying, "I'm really hurting," and the doctor saying, "It's all in your head" (which also happens all the time - because nothing can be proven or demonstrated - and the doctors are almost always wrong). Note that it's also possible that MSG doesn't affect everyone in the same way, similar to peanuts or bee stings or sugar. Or, it could be MSG coupled with another factor - an elevated temperature, or in combination with some other ingredient. I'd love to see the doctor who says, "It's all in your head" when someone's air tract has closed off.

(*) Blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up. - David Foster Wallace

But this HAS been studied seriously, and we have more to go on than anecdotal evidence.  My "blind certainty" as you call it is based on the scientific evidence, not anecdotes, nor on any personal belief or preference.  I have no dog in this fight -- I really don't give a flying f*** if there is an MSG impact per se or not, or whether you or anyone else avoids it or not.  But what I do care about is that people make decisions, take actions, and most of all make policy that affects others, on the basis of scientific evidence, not beliefs, not superstitions, not anecdotes.

The problem with this MSG thing, and why it gets me agitated, is that just letting it and such issues go when they arise and get passed around as fact, is that it condones and even further promotes lazy and dubious (i.e. non-scientific) thinking generally, and that mode of thought in turn allows society to make really dumb decisions in really important areas like global climate change denial,  or turning the free market loose with no regulation, or like Linda's example, not vaccinating our kids because we think it causes autism.  The way to make best and most often right decisions is to apply scientific principles (Linda's reference to scientific literacy), and we do ourselves no favors as a society when we use bad approaches even in innocuous situations.  Society will be be better served if we apply correct modes of thinking even then, so we get it right when it really does matter. It takes practice.  And I think it's worth the trouble to make an issue out of it.  Sorry, just how I am.

And BTW, I would say your blind certainty thing applies to you, not I.  Belief in anecdotes, and even personal experience, is blind, or at best near-sighted.  Acceptance of the best scientific evidence we have is how we see as clearly as we possibly can.

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There are people who are sensitive to it, and Don may be one of them.  The Smithsonian magazine had a nice piece last fall.  My only objection is to the title, which I think can easily be interpreted as a bit unkind, and unkindness tends to stop people from reading, thus defeating the purpose of the article, to educate, but that's a different issue.  :)

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