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Do We Really Have a 5th Taste? What Is the Umami Fad All About?

Is the umami fad nothing more than a massive counterattack against a few decades of anti-MSG bad press?

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"The umami hypothesis is that we need regular immune stimulation to be in optimal health and long ago, when we evolved, we got that stimulation from bacteria in our food," says Roberts, who used to teach at UC Berkeley. "Bacteria in food was so important for health that we evolved three different food preferences -- for sour, complex, and umami flavors -- to make sure we got enough of it." Now as ever, he says, "bacteria-laden food is the natural way to stimulate the immune system."  

Linking MSG with nightmares and other health problems, Roberts is anti-MSG:  

"I believe we like the taste of MSG because glutamate is created when proteins are digested by bacteria. We like glutamate because we need to eat bacteria to be healthy. Bacteria are too big and varied to detect directly; it's much easier to evolve a glutamate detector.  The problem is that now you can have glutamate in your food without bacteria." 

He recommends slaking the umami jones with naturally glutamate-rich foods such as soy sauce, seaweed, and cured ham. 

"Long before MSG, cooks did things that increased the umami of their food. MSG is an excitotoxin. … To get umami via MSG is no help and perhaps harmful. Our liking for umami is a sign that we should eat plenty of fermented food, not a sign that we need MSG. Adding MSG to food obviously doesn't make it fermented." 

Regulating MSG

While even the Mayo Clinic has to admit that no definitive link has ever been found between MSG and "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," anecdotal reports are so prodigious that the FDA requires manufacturers to list MSG on the labels of products that contain it. 

"MSG is considered 'generally recognized as safe' or GRAS by the FDA," explains the agency's Siobhan DeLancey. "It is considered a food additive and must be named on ingredients lists by its 'usual or common name,' which is monosodium glutamate. There are people who cannot tolerate MSG and other glutamates. However, the vast majority of people can tolerate MSG. Furthermore, adverse reactions due to MSG intolerance are not life-threatening like those due to true food allergies.

"FDA requires the labeling of the eight major allergens, which are peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, wheat, crustacean shellfish and fish. These are foods that can cause severe allergic reactions and death in certain people," DeLancey explains. "While MSG is not a recognized allergen, people with an intolerance can avoid it by reading the label. … I a product says 'No MSG,' it also should not contain ingredients that are sources of naturally occurring glutamate such as ingredients listed as 'flavor mixes' and 'spices.'" 

That's not enough for Jack Samuels, who launched the Truth in Labeling campaign in 1994, after being diagnosed as hypersensitive to MSG. Before that, he had been collapsing after restaurant meals for nearly twenty years. For him, it wasn't a matter of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome but Every Restaurant Syndrome, because MSG is contained in a wide variety of ingredients called by a wide variety of names in order to disguise it, from yeast extract to hydrolized vegetable protein to sodium caseinate.  

"People typically have dinner out and then say, 'I feel so good.' After having dinner out I always felt sick," says the retired hospital administrator, who estimates that 40 percent of Americans experience bad reactions to MSG, and that 2 to 3 percent -- amounting to some 9 million -- experience reactions as serious as his.  

Samuels tirelessly confronts food-safety agencies and scolds members of the press for publishing what he calls "glutamate-industry propaganda dressed up" as feature stories and news reports. At, he proffers an endless stream of statistics and studies linking MSG with obesity, migraines, asthma, brain damage, seizures, heart irregularities, lesions in the hypothalamus, and other horrors. 

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