Chiang Mai Thai

Ever wanted to learn Thai, in Chiang Mai? I did just that from November 2010, returning home in October 2011. If you don't want a headache, start HERE, it will explain the preceding posts. I'm Snap, Stray's other half. COOEE is our (other) travel blog.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MSG - Bum rap, or what?

Since arriving in Thailand, Stray has lost a few kilos without any effort (smaller portions I think), while my weight remains the same...probably due to the massive amounts of sugar hiding in nearly every dish I eat, not to mention coconut cream and oil...which I’m not going to go into right now.

However, I will say that my regular, favourite Fresh Juice vendor lady has my order down pat. I just appear in front of her and she reiterates ‘no sugar and a little bit of ice. Right?’ without a word leaving my lips (Otherwise, she’ll pour half a cup of liquid sugar into what should be a healthy freshly blended juice).

Catherine warned me that it isn't so healthy to eat out, long term, OK if you’re here on holidays or here for a short stay. At the time I thought bah humbug! She must be referring to the dangers of food poisoning and the fore mentioned perils.

Then somehow the subject of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, or Ve-tsin or E621, a food flavour enhancer ) came up when Stray and I were chatting one night and I vowed to start cooking more OK, start cooking period at home to avoid it...because it's bad...after we'd returned from our weekend trip to Chiang Rai.

The night before leaving we sat and waited for our meal to be cooked at a road side stall. We go this place regularly because of the wide variety of dishes they cook and well, it all tastes so delicious. I see the chef empty a large-ish spoonful of white powder into our meals and while eating, wonder, why it doesn’t taste too salty or too sweet...that couldn’t have been salt or sugar he just added so liberally, could it?

Other than being naturally present in foods such as: meat, fish, vegetables, grain products, tomato, milk, potato, soy sauce and many kinds of cheese in the free form, glutamate is a NON-essential amino acid and makes up about 2 kg of our body weight. It's also said that it imparts a taste called ‘umami', the scientifically recognised fifth taste of 'savoury', after salty, sour, sweet and bitter.
The types of symptoms experienced in response to large amounts of MSG may vary from individual to individual, but can include headache, numbness/tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and generalised weakness. These reactions, while unpleasant, tend to be transient and do not produce any long-lasting effects -  Food Standards Australia New Zealand
That’s all fine and dandy, but if extra doses can cause these symptoms, that can't be good, can it? And, if you’re eating added MSG every day, couldn’t that cause a perpetually-lasting effect?
I looked up the Thai word, so I would be prepared whenever I’m dining out. (ผงชูรส phohng chuu roht)

In Thai class the other day we were discussing eating on the streets and in cafés, when our teacher (Kruu K) walked in. We asked about phohng chuu roht and she told us that many Thais put it in their cooking and in excessive amounts. One of the reasons she cooks for herself.

In Australia (and I’m sure in other countries) it’s not uncommon to feel sickly after eating at a Chinese Restaurant, which are renowned for using it. Hence the name ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ was coined back in the 60’s, to cover a range of adverse reactions caused by consuming extra MSG. (Back in the 1960's, Chinese would have been just about the only variety of Asian restaurants in many Western countries). I thought it was banned in food outlets back home, but it’s’s just frowned upon and there are food labelling conformities in place. Because certain foods contain it in their natural form, eateries or products in Australia cannot advertise as ‘MSG free’, however they can display ‘no added MSG’ signs and labels.

The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally acknowledges MSG as safe a product as salt, pepper and sugar...and deemed it was safe to eat at 'customary levels'. So what's a customary level?

So, it's already in our raw foods. It's not necessary to add more, is it? Our teacher assured us that it IS, and sometimes in huge quantities. She says “you know the big pots of soup?” and motions pouring "half a kilo" of MSG into the mix. My jaw is dropping by this time.

I know we don’t always get what we need from our diets and become lacking in some nutrients, therefore, need to take supplements. But I’d never heard of anyone diagnosed as being glutamate deficient or of it being used for good, and not evil...until now.
Glutamic Acid (same, same as Glutamate) ‘is considered to be nature’s ‘Brain Food’ by improving mental capacities; and is used in the treatment of depression, fatigue, alcoholism, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation and schizophrenia....supplemental L-glutamine is also used therapeutically for arthritis, autoimmune diseases, developmental disabilities, impotence...tissue damage from cancer medication treatments...deficiency of this nutrient is rare’ Health Vitamins Guide  
Kruu K then told us about a Thai grandmother who mistakenly put a large amount of MSG, instead of flour or sugar?, in the bread she was making and fed it to her grandchild...the child died. It could be an urban myth, but a mix up in the kitchen is a scary notion all the same.

Glutamate can also provoke neurotoxicity (damage to nerve tissue by toxins). For this reason the psychiatric world has pointed the finger at it, as being a possible contributor to the cause and or development of several CNS (Central Nervous System) neurodegenerative disorders, for example Alzheimer's disease. I'm not sure if this could occur from eating food without artificially added MSG, but it does raise the question ‘why put any more in your diet?’

‘C’ one of my class mates (a young funny, knowledgeable bloke who’s been floating around Asia for more than a decade) likes to eat vegetarian and comforted himself (and us) with the thought that vegetarian restaurants here are healthy, therefore wouldn’t use MSG. He decided to check it out and reported back that he was correct. He’d asked, and they said they "don’t use MSG".

My teacher says “What? You went out into the kitchen while they were cooking?”

She didn’t seem to trust ‘C’s’ good news at all...not one iota. Of course he hadn’t, and you could see a deflated look of defeat and disappointment come over his face. She implied that even if he had managed to take a look while they were cooking, that it had probably already been put into pre-prepared and marinating food.

Others in the class said you can tell MSG is in your meal, because you become very thirsty afterwards...I’m sure everyone doesn’t though. Apparently it can be addictive, like salt for some people, in the respect that food just doesn’t taste as good without it. Then someone pipes up and says it can make you fat! that’s why I’m not losing any weight! Not likely from what I’ve read...that would be way too simple to remedy.
Monosodium glutamate is not associated with obesity or a greater prevalence of weight gain over 5 years: findings from the Jiangsu Nutrition Study of Chinese adults... ...These findings indicate that when other food items or dietary patterns are accounted for, no association exists between MSG intake and weight gain.
Mind you, that quote came from ...perhaps they’re just a trifle bias?

My head's starting to spin right about now.
Effects of MSG and excitotoxins cause people to eat again after a meal of foods containing MSG because MSG and excitotoxins trigger the effects of insulin, adrenaline, storing fat, and addiction to eating.  Esthetician Salary
Is that why I always feel like eating an hour after consuming Asian food? And, there's the 'fat' thing again.

When we were in Chiang Rai, I quizzed Nong Mum about this very subject (I knew I’d need to say MSG in Thai sooner or later). She agreed, many Thais put it in everything, but she doesn’t use it. Good to know as I was chowing down on a lovely piece of home cooked grilled, seasoned pork.

So we returned from our weekend stay in Chiang Rai over a week ago. Stray flew off to Australia and I went shopping for groceries (a coincidence, I assure you) and I’ve been cooking for myself ever since. I’m not saying I won’t eat out, because the food here is wonderful.

But, frankly I’m still a little undecided about MSG and was much happier when I was blissfully unaware that it was possibly being shovelled into my food on a daily basis.

What do you think about the white powder...bum rap, or what?

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  1. Excellent post Snap. I won't eat MSG if I can help it. I don't get headaches or anything. I just want to stay healthy and MSG isn't the way to go. I'd rather eat bugs :-)

  2. Hi Snap, well done on a comprehensive post. I think if we ignore what we are putting in our mouth we are risking our health, but if we think about it too much we are risking our sanity. I'm a bit weary of MSG and given the choice I'll avoid it; sometimes it just isn't possible though.

  3. @Catherine I've concluded that if it's similar to salt and sugar, which should be limited in my diet...I'll do just that. Limit it.

    Speaking of bugs, I haven't tried any yet. My friend recommends the grubs, but fresh from the market and not packaged...she says they're delicious.

  4. @Paul Garrigan I agree with you on the 'thinking about it too much'. I enjoy food way too much to worry myself to the point of never eating out, or insisting that I inspect the ingredients in their kitchens.

    At least I know a bit more about MSG now and can make an educated decision.

  5. the health inspector Freo, Perth told me they dont test Italian food for MSG because tomatoes are naturally very high, the inspector said they only test "asian" shops because of public pressure

    the origin of the "myth" that MSG (in "chinese" food) is harmful began in a report of illnesses from Boston that received lots of publicity, the retraction issued after discovering their was another cause for the spate of illnesses some months later was ignored, leaving yet another urban myth to circulate

    please recheck your sources before promulgating/reinforcing yet another food fad

  6. @davidb98 I've quoted information, both for and against, I don't think I'm reinforcing anything! I'm actually questioning it.

    Yes, tomatoes are high in glutamate, hence, the Italian restaurants not being inspected and the Australia regulations of NOT being able to advertise as MSG free.

    In the end, I think it remains a personal choice, whether to accept or reject the consumption of added MSG, and was curious about how others living in Thailand and Asian countries tackle the matter... because there doesn't seem to be any conclusive evidence!

    What do YOU do when you're living in a country that uses MSG freely, openly and in large quantities, and even lists it in their recipe books as an ingredient?

  7. I remember the first time I discovered MSG in the spice cupboard back home. We were told at school that it was bad for you so I told my mom. Of course I still see it in the kitchen :P

    I know when I've had a lot because back in the States we cut it out of our diets completely. Very hard to do once you start reading packages! I get headaches and I don't have the problem usually. My coworker told me her tongue feels funny like filmy or something.

    The conclusion you came to seems good - avoid it when you can but don't go too crazy. Bum rap? Bah, hardly. Why is it in so many foods??? And no body seems to know/care that its bad for you?

  8. Lani, I agree. After researching the subject, I'll be treating MSG just like I do, salt, sugar, refined carbs and fats...just a little and not too often.

    I found an excellent article after I published this post, which outlines further studies and cases of adverse effects of MSG, since the initial 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' report.

  9. Hey Snap--

    I don't really pay much attention because I feel like it's overhyped. I guess anything in large amounts isn't good. Like salt, MSG makes the food taste better, but I don't think I'd want half a kilo of salt in my food, either.

    Funny story about MSG: My first week in Japan, I went to the store and bought what I thought was salt...yeah, turned out it was MSG, of course, and I couldn't figure out why my food wasn't getting salty!

  10. Megan, that would be an easy mistake to make. From what I've read, your meal should have tasted REALLY GOOD though and you should have felt like a second serve shortly after finishing the first ;)

  11. I guess MSG doesn't work on me because I don't particularly feel that Chinese food tastes REALLY GOOD. It's 'ok' but that's as far as I'll go.

  12. I think its fine. There is a good article on this page:

  13. @Bangkok Blog Firstly, thanks for dropping by :) I read the article and found it quite bias, not objective. My following comments are aimed at the author, not at you.

    1. MSG wasn't invented, it occurs naturally. The envention was a synthetic substitute/additive.

    2. My food tastes good without it, so why add it?

    3. There are enough natural herbs and spices (which can be also benificial to your health) to pep up any meal without using fat, sugar, and salt.

    I guess it's like most things, such as salt, too much is not good. And, the debate for and against MSG (from what I've read) still continues. I've found no conclusive scientifically backed evidence to date, to put the matter to bed.

    So, not adding extra MSG to my food, remains a personal choice based on the pros and cons of many articles, I've found so far.

    Do you add it to your food/cooking?


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