Does monosodium glutamate (vetsin) have adverse effects?
Q: Is it true that vetsin has a lot of adverse effects on health? How does vetsin enhance the flavor of food?
General Santos City
A: Vetsin is the popular Filipino term for monosodium glutamate or MSG, the salt form of glutamic acid. It has been widely used for centuries as a flavor enhancer in Asian cooking, but only recently has an acceptable explanation for its flavor enhancement effect been postulated.
For a long time, the scientific world thought that the taste buds (the receptors for taste that are in the tongue and some other structures in the mouth) are capable of detecting four basic tastes only—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—and that all other tastes are merely combinations of these basic tastes. Lately, however, many experts have conceded that there is probably a fifth basic taste called umami that our taste buds are sensitive to.
Umami is a Japanese term which roughly means tasty. It is the naturally occurring savory taste that is present in many food items such as meats, cheese, tomatoes and many other foods that contain some amount of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid stimulates the umami taste receptors in much the same way as sugar stimulates the sweet taste receptors. Thus, the more glutamate there is in food, the more flavorful the food is and consequently, seasoning food with MSG enhances the flavor of food.
Does MSG have adverse effects on health? MSG has been blamed for what is known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” This condition that occurs in some people shortly after eating in Chinese restaurants exhibit symptoms including burning sensation at the back of the neck forearms and chest; numbness at the back of the neck that radiates to the arms and back; facial pressure or tightness; chest pain; headache; nausea; palpitation; tingling sensation, warmth, and weakness of the face, upper back, neck, and arms; drowsiness; weakness; and, for asthmatics, an asthma attack. In most instances, the symptoms appear 15-60 minutes after eating. However, without exception, the symptoms are temporary and self-limiting, subsiding spontaneously after a few minutes to several hours. There has been no report of death or prolonged illness that followed these symptoms.
Curiously, however, most foolproof studies that have been conducted on MSG have failed to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between MSG and the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Some experts say the syndrome is not really a distinct medical entity but simply a collection of anecdotes that describes a variety of postprandial illnesses. Other experts say that “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” at least in some instances, is a manifestation of allergy or hypersensitivity to MSG.
At any rate, the existing consensus among experts is that, at current level of use, MSG poses no hazard to health. Hence, there has been no attempt by any government to restrict the use and sale of this age-old food flavor-enhancer. Even the U.S. Food and Drug administration states that MSG is generally safe, but it acknowledges that the seasoning may pose problems for certain individuals like asthmatics and those people who can tolerate small, but not large, amounts of MSG.
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