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There are two aspects to the UP government’s charges against Maggi noodles which are currently making headlines. The first is the claim that the product contains excessive amounts of lead. If this claim is upheld, then yes, it is a serious charge.
But it is the second charge that intrigues me. The UP government says that the noodles contain excessive amounts of MSG or Monosodium Glutamate. At one level, this is simple enough. If there is a permitted level of MSG and Maggi has exceeded it, well then, the UP government has a point.
But there is also an underlying assumption to the second charge: the MSG is harmful and somehow, on par with lead. This is a familiar claim, often accepted as gospel in America. Here in India, however, most people don’t even know what MSG is.
Those who do know it have probably encountered it under the trade name Ajinomoto. This is the Japanese company that popularised MSG and is still the world’s largest producer.
The Japanese claim that there is a basic taste (like sweet, salty, sour, etc.) called umami that the West does not recognise. (Actually, that’s not quite true. The West does recognise umami now --- after years of dispute.)
The reason people have a problem recognising umami is that it is a complex taste to define. It is often called ‘meaty’ (the taste of chicken broth) but there’s umami flavour in tomatoes and Parmesan which makes it hard to define. For Indians, one easy way of recalling umami flavour is to think of a clear Chinese soup, say Chicken Wonton. Do you remember a slight sensation on the flat part of your tongue that couldn’t have come from chicken or stock?
That’s the umami flavour derived from the MSG the chef had added to the soup.
In the Far East, they add MSG to all restaurant and street food. Nobody seems to object. As the American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten has asked: if MSG is so bad why don’t a billion plus Chinese have any symptoms of MSG poisoning?
In American, however, MSG is regarded as toxic. In the Sixties and Seventies, various Americans complained of headaches and dizziness after eating at Chinese restaurants. This was initially called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome but later described as MSG allergy. So great was the scare that rare is the Chinese restaurant in the US that still uses MSG.
This came as a huge blow to Ajinomoto and other Japanese manufacturers. They explained that all that MSG did was awaken taste receptors on the tongue that made us recognise umami flavour. They added that glutamates occurred naturally in the body (even in mother’s milk). And finally they demonstrated that MSG has no effect on the body’s immune system so it could not trigger an allergic reaction, let alone poison people.
But it was too late. The notion that MSG is bad for you is firmly embedded in the American mind and in parts of Europe.
In Asia, however, MSG turns up in all kinds of restaurants (even those that serve Indian food) and in many packaged foods. Top Chinese restaurants will tell you they don’t use MSG. But it will be there anyway as an ingredient in “Chinese Powder” or “Gourmet Powder” or a pre-packaged sauce. It can’t really be poisonous because nobody seems to have died of it in India despite our fondness for it.
So is it completely harmless? Well yes and no. The Japanese are telling the truth when they say it can’t trigger an allergy.
But they are being economical with the truth. MSG can cause terrible symptoms in those who are intolerant to it. A food intolerance is different from an allergy in technical terms (no immune system response) but do you really care about technicalities if you have a headache, are feeling dizzy, have a tingling sensation all over your body, etc.?
So yes, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is not a myth.
But how many of us does it affect? In my experience it affects a tiny proportion of people (including my wife, which is how I have first-hand experience). But then a similar (or larger) proportion of people are allergic to nuts. Or to shellfish. Or intolerant to gluten.
So it makes no sense to label MSG as poison. Yes, there can be problems. But the situation is hardly black and white no matter what government inspectors say.