Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, is the double agent of ingredients – it goes by many names, the way it operates is covert and once it has infiltrated it sabotages your body. Japanese MSG, unlike its North American counterpart, is not gluten free. Although MSG you find in other countries may give you a bevy of annoying symptoms, this is not due to your celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
About a century ago, Professor Kidunae Ikeda discovered a sensation which differed from the four primary tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. He dubbed it ‘umami’ or savory. He then set to work on isolating this taste and came to the conclusion that glutamate, which is present in kelp based broths, was the cause of ‘umami’ and created a chemical that emulated these properties. He used regular sat and water in order to stabilize it, and presto. Monosodium Glutamate was born. Ikeda’s goal, however, was to make this taste available to lower class citizens and the process of deriving glutamate from kelp proved to be too expensive. Thus, a more cost effective system using fermented molasses or wheat was created. Yes, that’s right, our lovely pal wheat.
Post World War Two, American soldiers discovered MSG from the ration packs of demobilized Japanese soldiers. As is the usual case in war, foreign goods are introduced into the victor’s country and MSG was no exception. The introduction of MSG was in sync with America’s boom in mass produced meals and the seasoning’s surging popularity rode on the coattails of TV dinners and other processed food.
Currently, MSG used outside of Japan and China is concocted through a process of bacterial fermentation, in which genetically modified bacteria produce the desired glutamic acid. This process does not involve gluten and, despite other health concerns, is safe for people avoiding it. Another process involving the hydrolysis of the gluten protein is used as well. There scant amounts of information available for the former process, and not much is known about what percentage of manufactured MSG is made through hydrolysis.
So, you have come to Japan, kept your eyes peeled for those dreaded Chinese characters for wheat and have had everyone fuss over you after you tell them about your ‘wheat allergy’. Guess what? That’s only 10% of the battle. That’s the part where you are Godzilla and wheat is Tokyo. Now it’s time to face Mothra. You might want to sit down for the next while.
In Japanese, monosodium glutamate is グルタミン酸ナトリウム or gurutamin san natorium. This in itself would not be difficult as that is one nasty long word, but remember my spy analogy? In the 1980’s the marketing department at Ajinomoto, the brain child of Prof Ikeda and producer of MSG, were racking their brains as the public was discovering unnerving side-effects from their products. Ajinomoto decided to release a payload of euphemisms to cover their pride and joy, the most recognizable being ‘natural flavors’ in America. In Japan, this is doubly dangerous for celiacs as MSG still may contain gluten. Walk into any convenience store in Japan, and the biggest culprit, アミノ酸 or amino san, will be glaring at you from all four walls. The biggest slap in the face? Amino san is translated as amino acid, of which there are about 500 kinds. Only one of those 500 is glutamate.
Unfortunately what we do not know about MSG could fill all the ramen bowls in Tokyo. Many celiac forums tout the relative safety of sushi or onigiri (rice balls) but if you want to avoid that food hangover, it is better shy away. Think Italian or Spanish food in Japan is ok? You know those ingredients that ooze umami: Parmesan cheese? Asparagus? Tomatoes? They are all quite expensive here so chances are that the authentic Lombardian Trattoria around the corner is sprinkling some of Ajinomoto’s magic pixie dust on that ‘wheat free’ Risotto Milanese. Even salt, the one thing you would not check the ingredients on, may be loaded with the stuff. There are still options for food on-the-go, of course. Go to Suki-ya or Yoshinoya and get tamago kake gohan (raw eggs on rice). Almost all the food at konbinis are a big da-me, but you’ll learn to love yoghurt and a selection of other foods.
Kusumoto, Isao. “Industrial Production of L-Glutamine” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences: The Journal of Nutrition. Vol 131 No. 9 (2001): 25525-25555.
Leung, A. and Foster, S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs , and Cosmetics. New York: Wiley, 1996. pp 373-375
Renton, Alex. “If MSG Is So Bad For You, Why Doesn’t Everyone in Asia Have a Headache?” The Observer 10 July, 2005.