How bad is MSG? And should we avoid it?
The term MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) crops up a lot when it comes to the food we eat, particularly here in Bangkok. It is a seasoning regularly used in Asian cooking to bring out the ‘umami’ or ‘savoury’ flavour of a dish. Its founder, University of Tokyo chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered it in 1907, to be an additional flavour sensation to sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness.
Although the FDA has classified it ‘Generally Recognised as Safe’, there are ongoing concerns about consuming food containing MSG, the levels found in food in Thailand, and the effects these have on us and our children.
Food is everywhere in Bangkok, and there’s nothing better than skipping down to the market and picking up some take away for dinner or going to a local Thai restaurant to enjoy family favourites at the end of a long week. But unlike many Western countries, there is little legislation about quantities of additives used in food, or even laws ensuring the vendors disclose to the customers that MSG is present in the food being served in their establishments. (That’s not to say that Thailand hasn’t recognised the importance of addressing certain street food safety and cleanliness issues in existing legislations.)
Research has shown that ingesting MSG can cause a range of issues from headaches to heart palpitations. From the studies taken, it’s clear that MSG affects some more than others. But should we eat it without worrying, or should we be more careful about what’s being added to our food and how it affects our children?
Unless someone in your family speaks good Thai, or you have access to a good translation tool, it is always going to be difficult to find out whether there’s MSG in the food you’re eating, especially when dining outside of the home. There are some food producers and restaurants that pride themselves on being MSG free so it’s always worth shopping with reputable retailers, or checking with a restaurant before spending your money there.
As for street food, well, that’s a different matter. If anyone in your family has had a reaction to MSG, then it may be best to avoid unknown vendors all together, no matter how much everyone loves the food they produce.
It’s often quite easy to reproduce the meals at home from freshly bought ingredients. Granted, it won’t be as cheap or easy but preparing the food yourself prevents any problems with encountering MSG.
The current thinking is that MSG causes little harm to adults or children if eaten in moderation but the overriding solution should be that if you think you or your child reacts to MSG, then avoid it. It is possible to live without MSG, but it means more home prepared food and less whimsical stop offs for lunch in town.