Thanks chef, but what the hell was on that steak?

Thanks chef, but what the hell was on that steak?
Photo by Daria Volkova on Unsplash

Here’s one to set the cat among the spatchcock pigeons at your next dinner party. Is it a silent killer in your kitchen cabinets or a harmless additive to make your food taste better? ‘It’ is monosodium glutamate and it makes some of us pretty sick. Let’s look at the pros and cons.

You throw up, your heart starts beating faster, your head aches and your throat closes. Not necessarily in that order but it is hard to pin down which happens first. It usually starts with a burning sensation in your throat.

This is what happens to me, and others, when we encounter MSG (monosodium glutamate) in our food. It’s horrible, it’s scary. But MSG lurks in almost every restaurant, in many of our foods and on supermarket shelves.

It doesn’t come with a health warning or an age limit but yes, kids love it and I read online that it is even found in some baby foods.

Let’s put this in perspective. For seven decades I have enjoyed good health; hypochondria is for other sick souls and I am not allergic to anything unless you count beetroot which I just don’t like. I have only ever been in hospital to have my tonsils out and to have babies — but I got out of there as fast as I could. I have no problem with gluten, peanuts, animal fur, onions or any other natural substance. I am in fact quite smug about this.

I have been aware since the 1970s that certain foods gave me a queasy, uneasy aftertaste and a tired, sick feeling. It started with a certain fried chicken line which we were all chowing back then and I found Chinese food in restaurants impossible. A certain food additive in a shaker was particularly bad for me, but I just avoided all the above.

I am not going to use company or commercial names here because a significant number of people have no apparent reaction at all to MSG and I am not in the business of scare tactics. But MSG is really crap. It is not good for you.

Read the labels, you’ll see how prevalent it is.

Recently I had my most extreme experience to date at a braai. The braai cook told me that the steaks were “superb” because he was using his “meat tenderiser”.

I love a good steak and tucked in: almost immediately my throat started burning, then it tightened. I rushed to the nearest loo to get my breath back, to perhaps swallow some water. I was bloody scared, but just then a fellow guest walked up behind me and gave me what I imagine was the Heimlich manoeuvre. I threw up violently. Embarrassing, but I breathed again. My head ached, I was sweating and my chest felt like I was wearing a Victorian corset.

My new friend went and found the tenderiser — heavy with MSG. I don’t want to experience that again and have become super cautious. I had suspected MSG for some time and now I wanted answers.

Online you find the usual extremes — shock, horror and hey, it’s not that bad. Let’s start with the Mayo Clinic site.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavour enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s ‘generally recognised as safe’, but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label.

MSG has been used as a food additive for decades. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These reactions — known as MSG symptom complex — include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations), chest pain and nausea.

However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.

Dr Frank Lipman, author of many health books and online sites, is more outspoken.

He refers to MSG as the additive you should live without.

Topping the charts of dangerous additives is the deservedly maligned MSG (monosodium glutamate), a known carcinogen, endocrine disrupter and killer of brain cells, which may also be linked to the development of cardiac problems, kidney problems, neurological disorders, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease to name a few. Any wonder why feel I must spread the word on this devastating toxin millions of people eat every day?” he says.

Okay, that’s the extreme end. But he is adamant. He particularly blames processed foods in our diet.

Chances are, if you saw MSG on the label, you’d put it right back on the shelf and keep walking. Food processers know this, so it’s rare that you’ll see the actual phrase MSG on a label. Instead, they hide the evidence by making MSG difficult to identify.

Also known as glutamate (the chemical in monosodium glutamate), MSG often lurks behind murky phrases like natural ingredients, natural seasonings, natural flavours, or specific ones that don’t easily reveal the presence of MSG, such as maltodextrin, gelatin, glutamic acid, citric acid, hydrolysed yeast, protein isolate, textured protein, hydrolysed protein, hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), soy protein extract, autolysed plant protein, autolysed yeast, yeast extract, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate and modified corn starch to name a few.

As the FDA doesn’t consider glutamate hazardous to eat, it’s easy for food processers to blur the presence of MSG, making it nearly impossible for the average consumer to recognise.

“ ‘No Added MSG’ doesn’t mean MSG-free. Even some processed organic foods are guilty of hiding the nasty stuff. In many cases, a close label-reading will turn up glutamate here too, so my advice is to skip all processed foods, organic or otherwise.”

Shop like a sleuth, he advises.

If you must eat the occasional processed food, look for items with no more than three to five ingredients on the label, and be sure each ingredient is an actual food or specific spice, not a blend of chemical additives. Also, when you go to the supermarket, take along a copy of Truth In Labeling’s comprehensive guide to the names of ingredients that contain MSG. You can download a PDF from

For a more in-depth examination of MSG’s impact on your health, take a look at Dr Russell Blaylock’s excellent book Excitotoxins — The Taste That Kills — you’ll never look at processed foods the same way again!”

Thank you Dr Frank, but opening up the subject will I am certain cause some folk who never thought about it to say “hell yes, I went to a renowned restaurant (or takeaway or whatever) and I felt just like that”. It’s real, you are not imagining it.

Ask questions at restaurants and food outlets, make them show you their additives. MSG is out there and it is making some of us sick. DM


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