Most of you would have heard about MSG( Mono-sodium glutamate) due to its past association with Maggi but I was surprised to know from a friend that the same MSG is now being used to enhance taste in almost all forms of food in restaurants. The new name for MSG is tasting powder and yes this is now used in most restaurants( will explain how to identify them). The same friend told me that by not adding tasting powder in his food he stands at a big disadvantage because everyone in the restaurant industry is using this magic ingredient and some of them (roadside vendors) overuse it. This is one of the reasons why roadside fried rice always tastes good regardless of where you have it.
Umami the 5th Taste
As we know that there are 4 basic taste forms which everyone is aware of -Sweet, Sour, bitter and salty. Japanese have discovered that the tongue is able to sense another form of taste called Umami and is a taste which is characterised by savoury taste associated with broths and cooked meats. People taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamate, which is widely present in meat broths and fermented products. As this taste is unique one it has since been recognized as a separate taste and has since been added to the list if tastes(5 tastes). Only the Japanese had a name of this though every other cuisine knew that there was something special about slow-cooked meats and broths which made it taste nice. The actual word Umami was coined by Kikunae Ikeda who was a chemist in 1908 when he noticed this particular taste was strongest in dashi – that rich stock made from kombu(kelp). He then was able to pinpoint this to glutamate and he pioneered the production of MSG which was able to produce the same sensory perception as naturally occurring glutamates. He packaged this as Ajinomoto (the essence of taste) & made MSG and it was so popular. His company called Ajinomoto corp is now a large company making food additives and has $10.5 billion in revenues. The Japanese have thus made this naturally occurring substance to be readily consumable as a powder and this is now known as tasting powder. It is added into processed foods with the number – e-number E621 and INS 621 and it is not normally not called out as MSG due to the negative perception of term MSG.The usage of MSG is approved by both the FDA (in the US) and by FSSAI in India.
Tasting Powder and its impact on health
Now that we know that tasting powder is an approved flavour enhancer in processed foods lets try and learn more about its impact on the health and why people consider it bad for health. The negative perception of MSG came about due to a famous article in a British medical journal and was described as “Chinese-restaurant syndrome” and here it was described that MSG caused headaches, weakness. There have been many studies since the 1960s linking MSG to headaches, nausea etc, but these have not been conclusively proven and this is why the FDA and FSSAI have not banned MSG as a flavouring agent. One of the main reasons why it is not harmful is because of the fact that the exact same form of glutamate is available in many foods naturally. MSG is produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses and adding sodium to make its a stable powder.
Despite the results, I think there is a long term impact of having MSG every day in your restaurant foods. As the food with MSG tastes better (by signalling to the brain that the food which you are eating is tasty ) you are more likely to eat more of the food. Due to this overeating, in the long run, we will take more calories than we need. The overeating of the restaurant foods is a double whammy as the foods tend to have higher amounts of oils, colouring agents and spices than homemade food.
MSG in restaurant food
As I said in the beginning that MSG is now used in all types of restaurants with a few exceptions. In fact, most biryani joints add this in generous measure and even darshini hotels have started to use it in the sambhars and other items. How does one find if MSG is used in the food? There is no foolproof method to find it unless you send the food sample to a lab. My own experience has been that if a food tastes better than it usually does (when compared to the homemade version) then you should suspect that it has MSG added. The next best way is to find out the Umami taste by eating fried rice in any small restaurant or roadside vendor 🙂 It will most likely be laced with tons of tasting powder.
Given that MSG is now used in most restaurants (this I have confirmed by speaking to a lot of restaurant owners) the best is to avoid outside food and when you do have to eat you can ask certain foods(Chinese foods) to be made without the addition of tasting powder.