You open a packet of potato crisps or some crunchy, salty corn snacks thinking you’re just going to eat one but moments later, your fingers are scraping the bottom of the bag. All gone, leaving you wanting more but … guilty? But wait, it is not your fault. The culprit is MSG or ajinomoto —also responsible for making you hog at the Chinese restaurant, only to feel hungry in an hour.

MSG or monosodium glutamate is a sneaky food additive that creeps into a lot of stuff that we eat. It is present in every processed food — potato chips, tinned soups, packet noodles, salad dressings, cold cuts, packaged cookies, cake frosting and the delicious Chinese food at your favourite restaurant —making it all taste better and making us eat more.

Also known as ajinomoto or Chinese salt, it makes your taste buds believe that they are eating something better than you actually are, which is why it is used to enhance flavour. It over-stimulates the brain tricking you into thinking that food tastes really great, so you not only want to have more of that food, you also want to go back to it. This is the magic ingredient that food companies love to use as a flavour enhancer in their products, in order to develop an addiction in you for their food items. Whether you are sensitive to it or not, it is a chemical and one we need to stay away from.

Monosodium Glutamate is a dangerous food additive that you can easily do without

Chemically speaking, it is a salt of the amino acid family — Glutamic Acid (glutamate). The debate on MSG stems from the fact that scientists believe that there is a good ‘glutamate’ which is naturally present in the body, and there is an ‘added’ glutamate which is bad for the body — because too much glutamate in the body can lead to strokes.

The food industry uses MSG to confuse the issue by focusing on the “fifth” taste sense they call ‘umami’. It changes your perception of not just taste but also the nutritious qualities of what you put into your mouth. The body thinks you are having protein and the brain helps you eat more of it.

MSG is the reason why your chicken flavour noodles taste more ‘chickeny’ than real chicken broth, despite the former having just a few shreds of dried chicken.

MSG comes disguised as the following: glutamate, glutamic acid, monopotassium glutamate, yeast extract, yeast food, yeast nutrient, autolyzed yeast extract, autolyzed soy protein, hydrolyzed protein and hydrolyzed pea/corn protein, hydrolyzed corn gluten, calcium caseinate and many more.

Abid Merchant, a restaurant owner serves food cooked without any MSG at his restaurant. “Whenever I used to eat out I felt bloated, dryness in the mouth and acidity. I realised that it was due to the MSG that chefs used in restaurants to bring out the flavour. You have to work on altering cooking techniques and balance ingredients in a way that extracts maximum flavour from meat, veggies and spices, instead of using MSG.”

Effects of MSG include headaches, fatigue, palpitations, nausea and vomiting, sweating, flushing and numbness of the face, more so among people who are sensitive to it. Regular use of this ingredient can cause long-term issues like high blood pressure, autism, hormonal imbalance, epilepsy, food allergies, asthma, reduction in bile formation, cancer and possible sterility in females. The best option is to go for natural foods instead of processed ones where silent killers hide.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 1st, 2015

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