Questioning the MSG ban and why it matters

Faisal Siddiqi

The flavors of the orient have always occupied a special place in the hearts of Pakistanis. Chinese cuisine, in particular, has become ubiquitous across the country and the reason for this fondness is the colossal range and varieties in beef, mutton, seafood, and vegetables that Chinese cuisine offers. And what makes one crave for this cuisine is the unmatched umami taste that comes from the use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a seasoning and flavor enhancer. Known in Pakistan as Chinese salt, MSG elicits a unique taste sensation termed umami and is widely used as a flavor enhancer in various cuisines.

Umami is considered the fifth taste after salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. It is the meaty taste that we also get from mushrooms, cheeses, kombu, tomatoes, fish sauce and fermented items. Since its discovery over 100 years ago from a Japanese broth (dashi) by Dr Kikunai Ikeda, a Japanese chemistry lecturer at the Imperial University of Tokyo, MSG has been used as a food ingredient and seasoning in many different cultures and countries. MSG is the salt form of glutamic acid and is the purest form of umami. MSG is widely used to heighten umami flavors in different types of foods. MSG is also inherently present in the foods we eat every day and is synthesized by our bodies as the most abundant amino acid in breast milk.

Celebrated chefs the world over use MSG to heighten the umami effect in the food they prepare. According to Chris Koetke, chef, and Vice President of both the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts and Laureate International Universities Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts (USA), “…MSG is the ingredient responsible for umami whether it is in a particular food or if it is on its own. When MSG is added to a recipe, the umami taste simply goes up in the same way that a sprinkle of salt increases saltiness”.

One will not find umami on its own in supermarket shelves or spice racks, but MSG as a food enhancer, yes. It was available freely in the country until four years ago when the Supreme Court of Pakistan banned its sale, import, and export. The taste enhancer has been wrongly associated with some health issues and there is little clarity on the said ban despite the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declaring MSG safe for consumption. Even the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology suggest that MSG has been classified as safe for consumption.

In fact, given how hypertension has reached epidemic proportions in Pakistan and high dietary salt intake is one of the main factors contributing to the rise of hypertension, MSG can come in a savior. Decreasing dietary salt intake is perhaps one of the most cost-effective measures any country can take to improve public health outcomes. As one of the public health focus areas, the Government of Pakistan and The Pakistan Dietary Guideline for Better Nutrition published by the FAO put the spotlight on the need to reduce dietary salt intake to less than 5 gram/day as advised by the WHO.

MSG can be used to significantly reduce sodium. MSG contains about 12 percent sodium while table salt contains 39 percent sodium by weight. Hence MSG contains one-third the amount of sodium as table salt without losing palatability of the food. Using MSG as a replacement for some salt in the diet and to increase the appeal of nutritious foods can help make healthy eating easier, likely leading to better health outcomes.

The prevailing national ban on MSG is not only preventing us from experiencing true umami deliciousness, but also preventing positive outcomes from a public health perspective. If food can be both tasty and healthy, will it not be a win-win situation for all?