A chain restaurant recently opened near The Herald News, offering more lunch options for my excited office brethren.
Editorial page editor Roy Bernard asked me if I'd been over there yet. I told him I can't because they use MSG.
Roy pointed out that they have a sign that says they don't use MSG. But I've read comments online from folks who had MSG reactions at another location of this chain and were told that no MSG is added on-site, but some might be in the food when it arrives.
The chain's Web site says they don't use food from suppliers that use MSG, but that glutamate occurs naturally in some foods.
Such is the frustration of having an MSG sensitivity.
Some people avoid MSG because they don't like the idea of chemical additives. Other people, like me, avoid it because it causes us pain, difficulty breathing, numbness and dizziness.
I don't want everyone to stop using MSG. If you want it and you like it, go to town.
It tastes gooood. All I want, is to know when it's there before I feel like I'm having a heart attack.
"Monosodium glutamate, also known as sodium glutamate and MSG, is a sodium salt of the non-essential amino acid glutamic acid," according to Wikipedia.
Why do we use it? It makes things taste better. Unlike salt, it makes the food almost taste more like what it is. Beef stew takes beefier. Chinese food tastes richer. You get the idea.
People even refer to the taste MSG creates as umami, the fifth taste.
To go to Wikipedia again:
"Umami is a Japanese word meaning savory, a "deliciousness" factor deriving specifically from detection of the natural amino acid, glutamic acid, or glutamates common in meats, cheese, broth, stock, and other protein-heavy foods. The action of umami receptors explains why foods treated with monosodium glutamate (MSG) often taste "heartier"."
So it's delish. And it occurs naturally in some seaweeds, tomatoes and some proteins. No prob, right?
Some people have terrible reactions to MSG. The symptoms vary, but reaction isn't atypical. Within minutes of eating something with MSG, I feel like a metal band is being drawn tight around my chest. I have pain, I have trouble breathing. I feel like a block is pushing outward while the band pulls inward. My hands and arms go numb and I get dizzy. If I stop eating the offensive food, the reaction dissipates in 10 to 30 minutes.
But that night, I sleep like someone drugged me and may have random lingering symptoms the next day, such as aching teeth.
This doesn't mean you need to stop eating it. If you don't have a reaction to it, great. If you do, you'll know about it.
My problem is the labeling. See, MSG isn't just MSG. If you're sensitive to MSG, you're also sensitive to hydrolyzed proteins, autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, protein isolate and a few others.
That means that can of soup emblazoned with "MSG Free!" may have five or six ingredients that will cause a bad reaction for someone sensitive to MSG. It's cold comfort that it wasn't pure MSG that caused the trouble.
That means you have to really educate yourself if you have MSG problems. You have to learn the language and the tricks.
See, the FDA pretty much admits the sensitivities exist. (In a study they did, an M.D. thought he was having a heart attack. It was an MSG reaction.) But since it's painful, but not not life-threatening, they're not being hardcore about labeling it.
If you're making soy sauce with MSG, you're supposed to put it on the list. But ... you could use 'natural' MSG-type extracts and just call it "natural flavors."
Go to the store and look for a prepared food or sauce that doesn't involve "natural flavors." Now imagine you know that a lot of "natural flavors" cause you such pain that you gasp for breath. Kind of makes shopping hard, huh?
For example, I've only found one brand of ketchup I'm certain doesn't have MSG. Ditto soy sauce. Other things I've had to learn to make myself, like onion soup mix and taco seasonings.
On the plus side, I've dropped a lot of unnecessary convenience foods. On the negative side, I've been felled in a lot of restaurants.
That's where claims like the chain's "MSG free" sign come in.
If they really have no MSG or the substances that cause the same reaction, great.
But if they know that they have hydrolyzed proteins or similar additives, then the sign may as well say, "We don't add MSG per se, but if you have an MSG sensitivity, we may as well be adding MSG."
At that point, why advertise it at all?
I would like to ask the soup and broth companies why they print "MSG free" on their cans. One broth company puts an asterisk next to this claim, pointing out that it still contains hydrolyzed soy proteins and similar additives.
Since the MSG-free claim doesn't benefit people who have an MSG sensitivity, why make the claim at all? Is it just to sway people who have a vague notion that MSG might be bad but that haven't looked into the details?
Just be upfront with us. That's all we ask.
Till then, we'll be clutching our downloaded menu info and hoping for the best.