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DonRocks

MSG, Umami, and Molecular Gastronomy

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7-102.11 Critical Repeat Soap observed stored in a large container labeled MSG.

I couldn't care less that they're storing soap in a large container labeled MSG; what bothers me is that they HAVE a large container labeled MSG.

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7-102.11 Critical Repeat Soap observed stored in a large container labeled MSG.

I couldn't care less that they're storing soap in a large container labeled MSG; what bothers me is that they HAVE a large container labeled MSG.

In my frequent meth- and Clos de Mesnil-fueled night-time forays to scour the dumpsters of the city for discarded potato peelings to mix into our vast vats of Sysco Speed Spuds reconstituted potato flakes, for that "homemade, skin-on" look and feel, I often notice these giant containers of MSG in the alley behind Asian restaurants which look disturbingly like oil barrels--the same kind used by Valley Proteins to collect used grease from the gilded temples of Pommes Frites.

I guess these must be the higher class of Asian restaurants that can afford the barrels of MSG so big THAT THEY CAN NOT EVEN FIT INSIDE THE RESTAURANT.

I would definitely avoid the restaurants that can not afford these giant barrels of MSG, and which must therefore make do with the inferior "indoor-sized" containers. That to me just denotes a restaurant that doesn't care a Yak Milk Mascarpone-Stuffed Black Mission Fig for its guests, cuts corners wherever and whenever possible--and it is no surprise that it is a real health hazard!

Watch out indeed!

Just a thought though--why is MSG, (besides for those who are allergic to it or prone to migraines--who must also avoid chocolate, caffeine, red wine and trite Wagnerian operas passing for art among the Samsa-browed middlebrows) so bad, but the chemicals used in molecular gastronomy will get you a Beard award or two? That's one for the old grist-Paco Jet, eh?

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Just a thought though--why is MSG, (besides for those who are allergic to it or prone to migraines--who must also avoid chocolate, caffeine, red wine and trite Wagnerian operas passing for art among the Samsa-browed middlebrows) so bad, but the chemicals used in molecular gastronomy will get you a Beard award or two? That's one for the old grist-Paco Jet, eh?
Hear hear, Michael.

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Just a thought though--why is MSG, (besides for those who are allergic to it or prone to migraines--who must also avoid chocolate, caffeine, red wine and trite Wagnerian operas passing for art among the Samsa-browed middlebrows) so bad, but the chemicals used in molecular gastronomy will get you a Beard award or two? That's one for the old grist-Paco Jet, eh?

This was a great post, and you raise an interesting point with this. Not knowing what goes into the wizardry of molecular gastronomy, my initial question is: How much do they use, and what? Although I'm not "allergic" to MSG, I can sometimes tell when I eat it, and I suspect it's because I've had so much of the darned stuff, thrown into a bland stew to give it some flavor. It's cheap, insidious, and pervasive at so very many Asian restaurants. If some clown wants to use a microgram of polymer in my blinking caramel lightbulb, that doesn't bother me so much.

Cheers,

Rocks

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Another 3-star chef has Landrumm's back.

"We are facing a public health issue," claimed Santi Santamaria, who has won three Michelin stars for his Can Fabes restaurant in Barcelona. He said that the "molecular gastronomy" pioneered by Mr Adria, 46, which involved "filling diners plates with gelling agents and emulsifiers", was irresponsible.

"Eating more than six grams of methylcellulose can be harmful to the health," he claimed, commenting on one of the prevalent ingredients in the culinary alchemist’s dishes.

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This was a great post, and you raise an interesting point with this. Not knowing what goes into the wizardry of molecular gastronomy, my initial question is: How much do they use, and what? Although I'm not "allergic" to MSG, I can sometimes tell when I eat it, and I suspect it's because I've had so much of the darned stuff, thrown into a bland stew to give it some flavor. It's cheap, insidious, and pervasive at so very many Asian restaurants. If some clown wants to use a microgram of polymer in my blinking caramel lightbulb, that doesn't bother me so much.

Cheers,

Rocks

I used to think that way, but my recent, albeit fairly desultory, excursions into the wonderful world of umami have convinced me to take another look. True, MSG is quick and cheap and basically the easy way out, and who wouldn't say that anchovies and parmesan are a better way to go, but even humble MSG has its purposes. Forty million Fren...uh...Japanese can't be wrong :-D .

Come up some time and let me show you my fish sauce collection. Glutamates are where its at.

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I don't really understand the bad rep MSG gets. MSG is basically salt of glutamic acid. I can understand that some people can't tolerate a high salt diet, but it seems to me that alot of people have an unnatural fear of artificial additive as oppose to many type of fermented food that already contains copious amount of naturally formed glutamate.

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I don't really understand the bad rep MSG gets. MSG is basically salt of glutamic acid. I can understand that some people can't tolerate a high salt diet, but it seems to me that alot of people have an unnatural fear of artificial additive as oppose to many type of fermented food that already contains copious amount of naturally formed glutamate.

MSG is to the eastern diet what Corn Syrup is to the western diet - my mission is to rid the world of both. :lol:

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If there is one single Vietnamese restaurant in the DC area who will come out and say they don't use MSG, I will get behind them and give them my support. I don't want this chemical in my food if I can avoid it

umami=glutamate=naturally occuring chemical in many savory foods

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umami=glutamate=naturally occuring chemical in many savory foods

margarine=fatty acid=emulsification of vegetable oils

HFCS=sweetener=enzymatically processed corn syrup

morphine=alkaloid=derivative extracted from poppy seeds

Just because something has its origins in nature doesn't mean it can't be manipulated and mass-produced in a chemical factory.

And make no mistake about the romantic notion of umami. Just in case anyone thinks the concept has been around since the Han Dynasty, here are a couple tidbits from Wikipedia:

Umami as a separate taste was first identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University while researching the strong flavor in seaweed broth.

MSG was not isolated until 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda. MSG was subsequently patented by Ajinomoto Corporation (*) of Japan in 1909.

The history of umami marches in lockstep with the history of MSG, and I speculate that if it weren't for the marketing efforts of Ajinomoto, very few people in this country would even be aware of the term.

---

(*) Ajinomoto's Company Description from thefreelibrary.com:

Ajinomoto U.S.A., Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ajinomoto Co., Inc., the Tokyo-based food, beverage and amino acid powerhouse that is one of East Asia's best-known and most respected brands with annual sales of $10 billion worldwide. Manufacturing and marketing a diverse range of products around the globe, Ajinomoto is a leading producer of foods and beverages, pharmaceuticals, amino acids and specialty chemicals--including amino acid-based humectants, surfactants, emollients and functional powders for the cosmetics and toiletries industries. Ajinomoto's high-technology laboratories employ more than 800 scientists, technicians, medical doctors and pharmacists.

With a corporate heritage of almost 100 years (**), Ajinomoto opened its first sales office in the U.S. in 1917. Today, the company continues to be headquartered in New Jersey, with sales offices in California, Oregon, and Hawaii; a representative office in Washington, DC; and manufacturing facilities in Iowa, North Carolina and Oregon.

---

(**) This $10 billion chemical, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical giant owes its very existence to its 1909 patent of MSG.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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margarine=fatty acid=emulsification of vegetable oils

HFCS=sweetener=enzymatically processed corn syrup

morphine=alkaloid=derivative extracted from poppy seeds

Just because something has its origins in nature doesn't mean it can't be manipulated and mass-produced in a chemical factory.

And make no mistake about the romantic notion of umami. Just in case anyone thinks the concept has been around since the Han Dynasty, here are a couple tidbits from Wikipedia:

Umami as a separate taste was first identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University while researching the strong flavor in seaweed broth.

MSG was not isolated until 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda. MSG was subsequently patented by Ajinomoto Corporation (*) of Japan in 1909.

The history of umami marches in lockstep with the history of MSG, and I speculate that if it wasn't for the marketing efforts of Ajinomoto, very few people in this country would even be aware of the term.

I think Zora was saying that glutamate exists naturally too. Now sometimes the artifical version of a substance can be problematic--for example, my mother was allergic to the artificial version of folic acid, which kept her from eating enriched foodstuffs--so maybe MSG is similar.

Rob

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(*) Ajinomoto's Company Description

Funny, I believe this was the only brand found in my cupboards growing up. I also found MSG in my Cheetos the other day, so its popularity is growing?

I am wondering if that is why yeast extract is now being used - is it to try to create the umami flavor without using MSG? If so, I feel like I would be on the anti-yeast-extract bandwagon for the same reasons. I am a fan of marmite, but the yeast extract tastes in these soups or whatnots are worse than the spread.

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Just because something has its origins in nature doesn't mean it can't be manipulated and mass-produced in a chemical factory.

Out of curiosity--do you feel the same way about all refined and manufactured additives in food? What about sodium nitrate/nitrite used as curing agents and preservatives ("pink salt") in bacon, ham and dried sausages? Thickeners and stabilizers (some refined from seaweed) used in some ice cream, yogurt and cream cheese? Citric acid? Baking soda and baking powder? Slaked lime (calcium oxide) used to treat corn to make masa? Splenda, derived from sugar, which is itself highly refined? Personally, I'm not a big consumer of factory-produced food with a multitude of chemical preservatives and artificial colors. But I can't get that exercised about additives (or drugs) that are refined from nature or synthesized versions of naturally occuring chemicals. Anyone who has had surgery or been in severe pain knows that synthetic opiates are a great blessing to mankind, and there are a zillion other examples.

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Just wonder if this refers to identification via the scientific method. The article is not clear as to whether or not the concept existed prior to the identification as a separate taste. (My guess would be yes.) Much the same way that chicken soup was anecdotally identified as effective for helping respiratory infections, but the actual mechanism of it stimulating leukocytes was not proven via scientific method until some point within the last 5-10 years.

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I think Zora was saying that glutamate exists naturally too. Now sometimes the artifical version of a substance can be problematic--for example, my mother was allergic to the artificial version of folic acid, which kept her from eating enriched foodstuffs--so maybe MSG is similar.

I forgot to also note that I think sometimes it's also a question of quantity. My family has used MSG sometimes when cooking. They just use a pinch to enhance, whereas I think many Asian restaurants use it as a substitute for making an effort with the initial cooking. The one experience where we asked for no MSG at New Big Wong threw them for a big loop, and they just added a crapload of salt instead.

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Just because something has its origins in nature doesn't mean it can't be manipulated and mass-produced in a chemical factory.

But in this case, isn't MSG literally the exact same substance as what would be found in Nature? From a chemical perspective, it is irrelevant whether the sodium salt of l-glutamic acid were produced in a factory or in a frog's digestive system, or in a bacterium--at the end of the day, it is still the sodium salt of l-glutamic acid. What are the manipulations?

The history of umami marches in lockstep with the history of MSG, and I speculate that if it weren't for the marketing efforts of Ajinomoto, very few people in this country would even be aware of the term.

Given that the umami taste appears to be due to a specific taste receptor binding to salts of glutamic acid, it would follow that the history of umami 'marches in lockstep' with the history of MSG. It would be interesting to find out who pushed the term 'umami', instead of something like 'savoury', which would be less cuisine/regionally specific.

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But in this case, isn't MSG literally the exact same substance as what would be found in Nature? From a chemical perspective, it is irrelevant whether the sodium salt of l-glutamic acid were produced in a factory or in a frog's digestive system, or in a bacterium--at the end of the day, it is still the sodium salt of l-glutamic acid. What are the manipulations?

Given that the umami taste appears to be due to a specific taste receptor binding to salts of glutamic acid, it would follow that the history of umami 'marches in lockstep' with the history of MSG. It would be interesting to find out who pushed the term 'umami', instead of something like 'savoury', which would be less cuisine/regionally specific.

I hope this article from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published in 2006 can help shed some light on the questions posed in this thread. Of note, they found the food additive to be safe at normal consumption levels and that it could have beneficial uses as a flavor enhancer for people suffering from decreased appetite and oral intake as a result of impaired oral sensory perception.

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But in this case, isn't MSG literally the exact same substance as what would be found in Nature? From a chemical perspective, it is irrelevant whether the sodium salt of l-glutamic acid were produced in a factory or in a frog's digestive system, or in a bacterium--at the end of the day, it is still the sodium salt of l-glutamic acid. What are the manipulations

I again direct everyone's attention to this link. Scroll down to the Commercialization section, second paragraph, which says that "Modern commercial MSG is produced by fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses." There's no mention of seaweed extract (although I suppose this is one of the points you were making - that the source of MSG is irrelevant), but there's also no explanation of where one might find this substance:

msg1201_l.jpg

in Nature.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I again direct everyone's attention to this link. Scroll down to the Commercialization section, second paragraph, which says that "Modern commercial MSG is produced by fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses." There's no mention of seaweed extract (although I suppose this is one of the points you were making - that the source of MSG is irrelevant), but there's also no explanation of where one might find this substance:

Cheers,

Rocks.

Additional info here.

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Additional info here.

The article you cite is rendered questionable by the first sentence alone. There are a myriad of papers and studies about MSG available on the internet, some more credibly written than others (here's a Wall Street Journal article, for example). I think it's extremely important to be aware that many of these studies have been funded by Ajinomoto, who sells nearly $1 billion of MSG annually and has an obvious interest to promote the safety of MSG in the public mindset.

And it's not limited to MSG - here's an example of a 2007 Ajinomoto-funded study (see 3rd. paragraph) declaring the safety of Aspartame. Perhaps coincidentally, this came out shortly before the Hawaiian Senate voted to defer a bill that would ban Aspartame. (Hawaii, needless to say, is a large producer of sugar, so I suspect lobbyists were hard at work on both ends of this case.)

Cheers,

Rocks.

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there's also no explanation of where one might find this substance in Nature.

I am drinking a Founders' Porter as I write this, though this delicious substance is not found "in Nature"

About the Ajinomoto study funding.... Many studies are industry funded, but I’m not sure that necessarily invalidates them. I used to work with scientists who did some industry funded studies. Yes, there was an incentive for them to have fudged the data to achieve the desired outcome and this is something to be aware of. However, there was also a very strong incentive for them not to have: their career would essentially be over if it was found out that this was what they were doing (in fact it would have meant not just the end of their careers, but likely the end of our whole company). Further, most of these studies are in respected peer-reviewed journals. The reputation of the journal is on the line as well. In the aspartame example, Critical Reviews in Toxicology is no fly-by-night journal.

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I again direct everyone's attention to this link. Scroll down to the Commercialization section, second paragraph, which says that "Modern commercial MSG is produced by fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses." There's no mention of seaweed extract (although I suppose this is one of the points you were making - that the source of MSG is irrelevant), but there's also no explanation of where one might find this substance in Nature.

This is pretty much exactly the point I was making. The source of MSG is completely irrelevant, and whether you get your MSG from a plastic bag or as a component in seaweed, or fermented beets, or from a piece of pork it makes no difference.

I'm not certain if you are asserting that when MSG is used as a food additive, and not present as a natural component of food, it is rendered unsafe. It is not inherently unsafe--in fact, it is an endogenous component in our bodies. As with anything--including water, aflatoxin (a potent toxin commonly found in peanut butter), and MSG--the dose will make the poison, and too much of anything is not good. But on that basis, MSG is not much less safe, even at very high doses, than water would be.

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The article you cite is rendered questionable by the first sentence alone. There are a myriad of papers and studies about MSG available on the internet, some more credibly written than others (here's a Wall Street Journal article, for example). I think it's extremely important to be aware that many of these studies have been funded by Ajinomoto, who sells nearly $1 billion of MSG annually and has an obvious interest to promote the safety of MSG in the public mindset.

It's also extremely important to note that in many cases, the onus on proving the safety of a food ingredient is placed entirely on the manufacturers/producers of that ingredient (which makes sense, obviously, as they will reap the benefits). While academic researchers often take an (academic) interest in food ingredients, in most cases the work done in academia doesn't conform to regulatory requirements, and often doesn't focus on the safety of these ingredients. Academic researchers, for instance, are very interested in the binding of MSG to the umami taste receptor, and the structure of that receptor, but probably not so interested in doing very standard toxicity studies regarding MSG. Similarly, FDA will review the data supplied by food companies, or chemical companies, or pharmaceutical companies, but don't do much (if any, I believe) safety testing on their own.

Essentially, it is easy to say that these studies are potentially 'tainted' because they have been supported by those companies that stand to reap the rewards of having their product on the market, but it is generally only those companies that would have any willingness to support such studies.

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