Can we do without MSG?

By Joanne Yeo - Wednesday, Nov 07, 2012

Are you experiencing chest pain, headache, flushing, numbness or even a burning sensation in and around your mouth after a hearty meal at some Asian grease spoon restaurant? If your answer is yes to both questions, you may be experiencing a case of ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ (CRS), also known as MSG syndrome as many Asian eateries are known to use this flavour enhancer.


MSG is frequently used in Asian cooking to improve the overall taste of certain foods. Created in Japan by Professor Ikeda while on his quest to isolate the fifth taste ‘umami’ (savoury) that was common to meat, cheese and tomatoes, he discovered a chemical molecule that had similar properties to glutamic acid, an amino acid that is present in many foods, according to the Guardian newspaper. This then led to the creation of monosodium glutamate, or more commonly known by its trade name, Ajinomoto. Besides its use in Chinese, Japanese and other Asian eateries, it is also commonly found in processed food such as potato chips, seasoning packet of instant noodles and canned soups. Apart from the above-mentioned MSG after effects, it can also cause hair loss to some people.


Even as such worrying consequences are associated with consuming MSG, it is still a permitted food additive by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which classify it as ‘generally recognised as safe’ (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There is yet to be any realistic scientific evidences linking the syndromes to MSG, according to The Guardian.


In an attempt to dismiss the common accusation that MSG causes CRS, Vogue magazine food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten steps in and questions, “Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”, according to Havard Magazine.


Most Hong Kong restaurants use MSG in their food, says Mr SK Wong, partner and chef of Hillman restaurant, a Traditional Cantonese dining place. He shares that nowadays, a lot of restaurants are making the switch from using MSG to premix chicken seasoning powder, chicken stock cubes and/ or ready-made chicken broth for soup dishes. But depending on the type of ready-made broth, they may contain MSG too.


Mr Wong explains that the traditional way of preparing soup dishes would require the use of chicken or pork bones to make the broth. A little MSG will still be required to bring out and enhance the flavour of the soup, he adds.


For American restaurant, Tony Roma’s, Kitchen Manager Mr Victor Quek says the restaurant does not use MSG in their food. However, he reveals that the kitchen uses chicken stock that would most likely contain the enhancer to cook their flavoured rice and soup. He adds the use of stock will in part add a bit of local flavour to the western dishes.


The BIG question here is can we do away with MSG in our food? Mr Wong says dishes (soup, stir-fried, etc.) can be cooked with or without MSG. He gives the example that homecooked food that (often) does not contain MSG can still be eaten. However, there will be a significant taste difference between the two. Dishes with MSG added are tastier and more robust in flavour. A very good MSG replacement for soup dishes that he shares is the addition of dried scallops (conpoys). These magically make soups tastier and sweeter but at a cost.


So, whether or not we can do without MSG will depend on how we prefer our dish to taste like: tasty or tastier and if you can handle an some backaches and dry mouth syndromes.
Dried scallops (background) are good substitute for MSG (foreground)