Monday, October 26, 2009

KFC distributes free food and juvenile antics

Glutamic acid

free today if you want it

I sense a disturbance in the umami, as if millions of chickens suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly seasoned.

Last May, KFC caused a publicity backlash by purporting to offer free grilled chicken via Oprah. Apparently, people really like free stuff. Restaurants weren't able to keep up with the orders, causing long lines, cancellations, rainchecks, and at least one consumer fraud lawsuit.

Well, they're doing it again.

Like almost everything at KFC, their new grilled chicken includes MSG—both in the marination and the seasoning. (More on KFC-MSG connection later.) I don't find the seasoning on their grilled chicken excessive though; it appropriately brings out the flavor of the meat rather than overwhelm it. The grilled chicken has 440 mg of sodium compared to 1050 mg in the original recipe. I suspect most of the cuts came from table salt, which has more sodium on a percentage basis than MSG.

Verdict: a bit greasy, but MSGecent.

Meanwhile the president of KFC decides that he's a unbelievably lame version of Stephen Colbert and sends a letter to United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon demanding the recognition of "Grilled Nation" and a seat on the UN. Loser.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

MSG Myth #1: Glutamate is not Glutamine (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Glutamic acid

Structure of Glutamic Acid
Note the "OH" on the left side.
Found in all protein.
Tasty as free glutamate.

Sometimes, people who freak out about MSG can't help but display their ignorance of the topic. One of the most common mistakes is to hopelessly confuse completely different substances because their names happen to share some letters.

To wit: while hyperventilating about MSG, Alicia Richardson makes the mistake of assuming that glutamine is the same thing as glutamic acid (the tasty amino acid behind free glutamate and MSG). She apparently reached this conclusion because their names look kind of similar.

It's a bizarre report, lacking the common sense to even distinguish between "natural glutamate" and "evil added MSG" as most MSG paranoids do. From this point, her analysis goes downhill.

OMG, MSG is in asparagus and apple pie!

She claims that glutamine occurs in several fruits, while glutamic acid is found in several other foods.


Structure of Glutamine
Note the "NH2" on the left side.
Found in all protein.
Not especially tasty in free form.

Wrong! Glatamic acid and glutamine are in fact two different amino acids, which is why biochemists cleverly thought to name them different things. Glutamine is an amide of glutamic acid, meaning that it has a amide group instead of the carboxylic acid group in glutamic acid. Unlike free glutamic acid/MSG, free glutamine does not have flavor-enhancing properties.

Both compounds are among the 20 amino acids that form all life on earth. Therefore, both compounds exist in practically every meal you eat! Now go freak out (or not—it's up to you).

This sort of misunderstanding seems to be common among the MSG paranoids. Several years ago, a vegan message board poster invented a persistent urban legend by concluding that the flavor enhancer disodium guanylate (aka GMP) was bat feces—apparently because "guano" sounds kind of like "guanylate." In fact, guanylate is the phosphate of guanosine, one of the four nucleosides that make up the rungs and ladders of DNA—which is obviously found in all living organisms. GMP is not made from bat guano, which is more than can be said for the bogus assertion.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"British gravy needs MSG," says Royal Society

According to the Daily Mail, scientists in the Royal Society of Chemistry have determined that Brits are making gravy the wrong way.

The Society says that Britain should proudly reclaim her traditional Victorian-era gravy recipes, but with one improvement: soy sauce. As royal chemist Dr John Emsley explains, soy sauce contains monosodium glutamate (MSG), which unleashes a meaty umami taste.
Good gravy!

gravy granules: boxed, brown, British

According to the Mail, Emsley is something of a cooking science expert, having discovered the "perfect recipe for Yorkshire pudding" last year. He believes that British subjects should stop dumping gravy granules into their pot roasts.

What are gravy granules? Apparently, they're a kind of instant gravy that un-aspiring cooks drop into boiling water. One brand, Bisto, has 79% of the market share. Here is the ingredients list for Bisto Beef Gravy Granules:
Potato Starch, Maltodextrin, Vegetable Oil, Salt, Colour (E150c), Flavourings (contain Celery, Soya, Wheat), Wheatflour, Flavour Enhancers (E621, E635), Emulsifier (E322) (Soya), Spice & Herb Extracts, Onion Extract.
Two interesting points. First, this "beef gravy" is completely vegetarian. Second, the "beefyness" of this packaged gravy is almost certainly due to MSG. In the EU, our friend MSG is called E621. What's E635, you might ask? Nothing but MSG's synergistic partners, disodium 5'-ribonucleotides DSI and GMP.

No wonder these granules have overtaken grandma's recipes—they're powered by savory free glutamate! The Royal Society wants to level the playing field by arming grandma with the granule's secret weapon: MSG.

Using the umami of soy sauce, tasty and proud British gravy can be restored. According to the Mail, gravy was invented by patriots rebelling against the French-infested upper class and their insidious stock-based preparations. Boo, France! Thus, the only truly British gravy is derived from cooked meat juices. Cue Rule, Britannia!

Here are ingredients for Royal Society of Chemistry gravy:
The juices from a joint roast of meat (preferably beef), flour, vegetable water (cabbage), iodized salt, teaspoon of dark soy sauce, pepper.
Sounds MSGlicious, and much better than brown granules.

I applaud the the Royal Society's message, but surely they could find something more patriotic than soy sauce? How about gravy and Marmite—Britain's own savory condiment?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

S&B Golden Curry

Golden Curry

curry "chocolate" bar contained within

S&B Golden Curry is pure warmth, love, and MSG condensed into the most attractive imaginable form: an spicy bar of what appears to be ochre chocolate.

You see, the sauce is solid at room temperature, so it's proured into sections for easy breaking and melting into stir fry.

As Japanese-labeled foods go, S&B Golden Curry is pretty easy to find. It's almost always available in Asian supermarkets, even ones that have few other Japanese products, and it's sometimes even found in mainstream supermarkets. A good price for the 100 g box is $2.

This package of Golden Curry was purchased at Open Produce, a local shop specializing in organic and healthy options. Undoubtedly, it's sold as a world food sampling. Luckily for me, S&B Golden Curry is from Japan, where few people flip out over glutamate. The ingredients list is short, sweet, and savory, including three different flavor enhancers:
Wheat Flour, Edible Oils (Palm Oil, Canola Oil), Salt, Sugar, Curry Powder, Spices, Caramel Color, Monosodium Glutamate, Malic Acid, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate.
The effect is well-executed. Although Japanese curry is almost invariably milder than Indian varieties, the spice produces warmth on the tongue and tingling spice in the nose, which is nicely paired with the flavor enhancers. MSG alone is a nice pairing with curry, but it produces an especially well-rounded savoriness when combined MSG's junior partners GMP and DSI (5'-guanylate in the disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate).

It makes almost any dish taste like it's backed with a robust beef stock, even though the sauce itself is vegetarian since 2002.

As made by the directions, Golden Curry is quite potent and can be eaten with a lot of rice—or, as I had it today, mashed potatoes. If you don't want to cook rice on the side, just add it to more veggies than the directions recommend. Makes a good vegetarian tofu and/or potato curry, which should satisfy even demanding carnivores.

Verdict: MSGlicious.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is MSG?

Kikunae Ikeda

Kikunae Ikeda

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of L-glutamic acid, a naturally-occurring nonessential amino acid, which makes up about 10-25% of all food protein.

MSG has been added to foods as a flavor enhancer for over 100 years—ever since Kikunae Ikeda purified it from dried kombu (seaweed) in 1908. It has been the subject of hundreds of medical studies, but every regulatory agency in the world has concluded that MSG is safe for human consumption. This isn't surprising because measurable amounts of natural free glutamate exist in practically all foods with protein.

What the heck is a nonessential amino acid?

L-glutamic acid is an amino acid, one of the 20 amino acids contained in all natural protein. It's a "nonessential" amino acid because humans don't need to consume any of it in a healthy diet. Instead, the human body synthesizes glutamic acid on an as-needed basis.

Glutamic acid is highly soluble in water, and it's a weak acid, so it has two interchangeable forms—glutamic acid and glutamate, which is the conjugate base (the same compound without the H+ ion).

Glutamic acid is of of the most abundant amino acids in the human body, and one of the most common amino acids in nature. Anything with protein contains glutamate, and glutamic acid typically constitutes 10-25% the weight of animal and vegetable protein.

What makes MSG any different from the glutamate found in all protein?

Two amino acids

peptide bonds link amino acids together as protein

MSG is "free" glutamate—the unbound form of glutamic acid, unattached to a protein.

Proteins are complex molecular structures built by the peptide bonds between hundreds or thousands of amino acids. Most of the amino acids you eat are bound as protein, and they don't break down into free amino acids until they are hydrolyzed by stomach acid and intestinal enzymes into individual amino acids.

That said, practically anything with protein will contain some hydrolyzed protein (and therefore free glutamate). Free glutamate is chemically indistinguishable from added MSG.

Foods contain free glutamate for several reasons. First, organisms necessarily keep a supply of free amino acids on hand for synthesis, and these will be present in the foods you eat. Second, when cells die—as when tomatoes ripen—more of their proteins become hydrolyzed. Third, the heat of cooking hydrolyzes some protein, including glutamate. Finally, and most importantly, the traditional process of fermentation hydrolyzes tons of protein, and much of this hydrolyzed protein is necessarily free glutamate.

Therefore, many foods with absolutely no added MSG nevertheless contain significant concentrations of free glutamate, especially fermented foods like cheese and sauces. Here are the natural concentrations of glutamate in food:
  • Marmite, 1.96%
  • Vegemite, 1.43%
  • Parmesan cheese, 1.2%
  • Soy sauce, about 1%
  • Ketchup, about 0.4%
  • Steak sauce, about 0.35%
  • Tomatoes, 0.24%
  • Peas, 0.2%
  • Worcester sauce, 0.14%
  • Meats, 0.02-0.07%
  • Human breast milk, 0.022%
How is commercial MSG produced?MSG crystals

MSG crystals

Monosodium glutamate is predominantly made by the yeast fermentation of high-calorie food products like corn starch and corn syrup. The largest producer of MSG in the world, Ajinomoto, makes MSG from this process using a yeast strain genetically engineered to produce an excess of glutamic acid.

MSG manufactured by this fermentation process has exceptional purity of about 99.5% L-glutamate. Contrary to some of the MSG misinformation online, industrially-isolated MSG contains almost no D-Glutamate. In fact, natural sources of glutamate contain more of this impurity than the MSG added to foods.

Why does free glutamate enhance the flavor of foods?

Only the unbound form of glutamate enhances the flavor of foods. On the tongue, MSG produces a savory sensation that the Japanese call umami; a fifth taste besides salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. Receptors on the tongue sense the active groups of MSG, which combines especially well with aromatic tastes like garlic and curry. Free glutamate is the reason so many traditional foods around the world taste so good. (Yes, MSG, The Secret Behind the Savor, NYT)

Most people in the west cannot accurately identify the taste, but in East Asia, it's a well-known flavor in traditional cooking. I first recognized it as the common sensation in Parmesan cheese, KFC gravy, and Doritos tortilla chips.

Glutamate is the flavor of protein; it makes things taste meatier and more savory than they actually are. Like salt, too much MSG makes food taste worse; above 1% MSG, food starts to taste more like dried ramen seasoning—simplistic, salty, and bad.

The bottom line: is MSG safe?


It's been thoroughly studied and is approved as safe by every regulatory agency on earth. Here are some comprehensive reports on the subject:
"But," you might be thinking, "wasn't smoking once considered safe according to regulators? Why should we trust the regulators to protect our health?"

Personally, I don't necessarily trust them, but in this case we can look at robust and independent data to see for ourselves that MSG is no more harmful than table salt. In particular, consider how MSG has been widely used in Japan for about 100 years. Several generations of widespread MSG consumption have not stopped the Japanese people from being one of the healthiest and longest-living nationality on earth. Indeed, Japanese have only recently begun to have American-style problems with obesity now that some residents are eating American-style junk food and living sedentary lifestyles.

MSG doesn't make Americans unhealthy. Poor nutrition and lack of exercise make us unhealthy. Blaming MSG is actually symptomatic of the greatest American health problem—our laziness.