No, this article is not about the film of the same name (Messenger of God) or its fans. If that were the case, the headline would have been “MSG’s Guide to Dummies”. Instead, we will use this space to give you the lowdown on Monosodium Glutamate, the food additive at the heart of a controversy that has resulted in instant noodles brands vanishing off Indian shelves, including Maggi, a sub-culture unto itself up until about a month ago.
What it is
MSG is the crystalline or stable form of glutamic acid, a chemical that provides a flavour unlike any of the other basic tastes that food can have: sweet, salty, bitter, hot and so on. The closest one can come to describing this unique flavour is savoury, or umami as Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese scientist who first discovered a process for synthesising MSG dubbed it.
What it is also called
Ajinomoto is the most common alternative name by which MSG content is declared on food packaging. This is actually the name of the Japanese corporation that has patented this name, to be used for the MSG crystals it manufactures and distributes around the world. It’s a common ingredient used in “Indian Chinese” food. Aspartame, “yeast extracts”, “hydrolysed protein” and “textured vegetable protein” are other popular names.
What it definitely does
MSG also tells the brain that you’re not full yet, causing you to eat more of the stuff that’s sprinkled with it; Maggi, chips or goodies from your neighbourhood chowmein stall. The tagline “no one can eat just one” thus explains itself. Bottom line: MSG makes you eat unholy amounts of junk food minus the guilt; you were hungry. In fact, this is used as a thumb rule with packaged food: if you want more and more, it probably has MSG. Chips, crisps and many other kinds of packaged food have been known to add MSG: canned tuna, some brands of mayonnaise and so on.
What it sort of allegedly does
According to certain food writers and a segment of the scientific community, prolonged intake of MSG causes headaches, nausea, nerve damage and loss of motor control. Not only this, unconfirmed claims have popped up at places about MSG being an “excitotoxin”, which means a chemical that stimulates nerve cells, specifically brain cells. Why should this be bad, you ask? This line of criticism claims that repeated stimulation through MSG pushes brain cells over the line, with the potential to cause irreparable brain damage, depending upon the severity of the reaction.
The (crucial) disclaimer
We would like to qualify these statements by saying that till date, there has been nothing even close to a consensus about the so-called “excitotoxin” aspect of MSG. Indeed, many commentators have noticed the curious timing of these allegations about MSG: most of these articles, books and papers surfaced around the time of an unprecedented boom in the popularity of Chinese food in the USA, especially takeaways that contain MSG in most cases (most of the scare-mongering around MSG originates from America). Does this mean that my Maggi has “taste bhi, health bhi”? We can safely answer this with a resounding “no”. It should be noted that the ban on Maggi in India has as much to do with lead content as MSG: no amount of dehydrated veggies can change this. Moreover, Maggi is made out of maida, which is the unhealthiest flour you can have in India. We would recommend shifting to a healthier breakfast option, like muesli with a plate of sliced fruit on the side or a single egg poached, along with two slices of bread plus baked beans or mushrooms tir-fried/smoked.