An MSG Convert Visits the Factory of the Manufacturer Ajinomoto

Helen Rosner wrote . . . . . . . .

On my kitchen counter, to the side of the stove, there is a jagged skyline of jars and bottles, featuring the condiments and oils and spices that I use too often to ever properly put away. A few are ingredients so key that I buy them in bulk, storing the multi-kilo mega-packages in the back of the closet and decanting them for daily use into more countertop-friendly vessels: olive oil, kosher salt, and monosodium glutamate, or MSG. In one combination or another, this holy trinity ends up in almost everything I prepare—the MSG, with its savory chemical magic, is particularly useful as rocket fuel for dishes of raw fruits and vegetables. I whisk it into vinaigrette before dressing a salad; add it by the teaspoon to the relish of fresh plums and jalapeños that I make each summer; and, whenever I’m feeling snacky, sprinkle it on chopped cucumbers.

A few years ago, this affinity for MSG might have made me seem edgy or cool. Monosodium glutamate has been widespread in the American food supply since at least the nineteen-twenties, imported from China and Japan by major food-production companies like Heinz and Campbell’s, according to research done by Catherine Piccoli, a curator at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink. But a 1968 letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine raised the spectre of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” an illness allegedly brought on by the consumption of MSG, which was commonly used in American Chinese restaurants. Ever since, the chemical compound has been vilified—despite dozens of rigorous studies concluding that the ingredient is innocuous and the “syndrome” nonexistent. Certain scientists and culinarians have long agitated for MSG’s rehabilitation. In a 1999 essay for Vogue titled “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?,” the legendary food writer Jeffrey Steingarten gleefully ripped to shreds the standard litany of complaints and protests. But only in the past decade has MSG’s reputation truly turned a corner. The Times, Epicurious, and Bon Appétit have risen to its defense. The near-infallible food-science writer Harold McGee has regularly championed its use. At the 2012 MAD symposium, in Copenhagen, the chef David Chang gave a talk on the anti-Asian sentiment that underlies MSG aversion. “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?” Anthony Bourdain asked on a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown.” Then he gave the answer: “Racism.”

I am white, I grew up in the Midwest, and my childhood exposure to the rich and multifarious cuisines of Asia was limited to takeout pad thai and occasional dumpling jaunts to Chicago’s Chinatown. Like many people with backgrounds similar to mine, I was reflexively MSG-averse. It was Steingarten’s essay that first opened my eyes to the illogic and superstition of my ways. After reading it, I picked up a dusty bottle of Ac’cent-brand MSG at my corner bodega. I brought it home, made dinner, and stepped into the light. After a few months of passionate use, I levelled up from Ac’cent, which includes other flavorings besides MSG, to the more pure and exquisite Ajinomoto, which is available in a glass jar shaped like the company’s mascot, a red-and-white bear named AjiPanda.

Monosodium glutamate is a compound molecule: in it, glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the mysterious deepening of flavor, is stabilized by sodium, becoming something flaky and sprinkleable, like a fine, pearlescent salt. Glutamate is produced naturally by the human body, and it is an essential building block of protein found in muscle tissue, the brain, and other organs. (It is present in remarkable quantities in human breast milk, though it hardly appears at all in milk from cows.) Glutamate also occurs naturally in all the foods that we associate with umami: aged hard cheeses, tomatoes, mushrooms, dried and fermented fish and fish sauces, and savory condiments like Marmite and Worcestershire sauce. Like any mindful cook, I keep a wedge of two-year-aged parmesan in my cheese drawer and a tube of tomato paste curled up in the corner of the butter shelf, knowing that pasta will always taste better under a glutamate-rich snowfall of parmesan, and that a squiggle of tomato paste can deepen any sauce or stew. But, sometimes, you don’t want a dish to be cheesy or tomatoey; sometimes you just want something to taste like itself, only transcendently better. For that, nothing but pure MSG will do. It is to savory flavor what refined sugar is to sweet.

Despite MSG’s image makeover, I’ve found that plenty of people remain resistant to incorporating it into their cooking. They are willing to bring MSG into their homes as a component in other foods—more than happy to accept it as a flavoring powerhouse in Doritos, instant ramen, canned soup, and bouillon cubes, or at least happy to accept its euphemisms, like “hydrolized soy protein” and “autolyzed yeast.” But the notion of buying and using the raw ingredient is often a bridge too far. I’ve started keeping spare bottles on hand to give as gifts when guests at the dinner table pause to compliment my green salad or olive tapenade. It’s not that I’m a particularly adept cook, I say, producing a panda-shaped shaker, I’m just unafraid to use a secret weapon—and I’m ready to convert the skeptics.

Last month, on a visit to Tokyo, I spent a morning paying my respects at the altar of umami, taking three trains to get from my hotel to the production headquarters of Ajinomoto, in an industrial neighborhood in Kawasaki, a city on the southern edge of Tokyo’s exurban sprawl. The company, which has operated in Japan for more than a hundred years, is the world’s largest manufacturer of MSG and MSG-related products, the top-selling provider of “dry savories” in more than a hundred and thirty countries; in 2017, it reported annual global sales of more than ¥1.09 trillion (nearly ten billion dollars). Ajinomoto’s co-founder, Kikunae Ikeda, was a chemist who, in the first decade of the twentieth century, became fascinated by the meaty flavor of a meatless seaweed broth and decided to investigate its source. “There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat, but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty,” he wrote of his curiosity. After chemically treating a segment of kombu seaweed and then leaving it to evaporate for several days, he observed that a translucent white crystal began to form. He found that it was chemically identical to glutamic acid, an amino acid naturally present in the human body. It had no odor and a delicate composition, dissolving nearly instantly in liquid. But on the tongue it was revelatory: rich, deep, concentrated, and subtle. Ikeda called this sensation umami (literally, “deliciousness”)—a fifth category of taste. He brought his discovery to Saburo Suzuki, Jr., who was at the time the head of an iodine manufacturing company, and the two went into partnership as Ajinomoto, or “essence of taste.”

The factory complex is a sprawling campus of production buildings, administrative offices, and giant fermentation tanks. (Most of Ajinomoto’s MSG is made from molasses, a cheaper and more reliable source than seaweed.) The campus is bisected by the tracks of the local commuter-rail line—the stop, called Suzukichō, is a nod to the company’s co-founder. (Its previous name was simply Ajinomoto-mai.) Like many of Japan’s old and powerful companies, the factory is delighted to welcome visitors for a tour, which is equal parts propaganda and industrial playacting. When I stepped off the train at Suzukichō station, the platform was dotted with stickers of vermilion panda paw prints, which led me on a short path to a low-slung modernist building with a white school bus covered with smiling pandas parked out front. This is Umami Science Square, Ajinomoto’s visitor center, and the starting point for the factory’s free ninety-minute guided tour.

After watching a brief promotional video inside a cavernous projection room fitted with three-hundred-and-sixty-degree screens, our small group—two middle-aged couples and a pair of twentysomething girlfriends, all of them Japanese, and me—followed a smiling guide to the panda-bedecked bus for a tour of the factory campus. It included a stop to observe one of the packaging facilities, where suited technicians watched as conveyor belts pushed bottles through label machines, and massive articulated robots folded and filled boxes as an animation of a dozen AjiPandas danced happily along the walls to a recording of “The Entertainer.” We drove through the campus, observing the fermentation tanks where tens of thousands of gallons of molasses bubbled in meticulously regulated darkness. We did our own pantomime of factory work, donning hairnets and latex gloves and plastic jackets, spraying down in a cleanroom antechamber, and weighing, filling, and packaging our own small bottles of MSG flakes. We did a taste test of miso soup: pleasantly warm and bland, at first sip, and then—after a gentle snow of Ajinomoto—thunderous and baritone and complex.

The Ajinomoto tour is free, but it requires advance registration. For visitors who show up unannounced, Umami Science Square still has things to offer. One half of the lobby houses what basically amounts to a museum of MSG, featuring vitrine displays of high-umami foods labelled with their respective quantities and varieties of umami-stimulating amino acid. (Kombu was at the top, followed by dried sardines, which are rich in inosinate, another umami-stimulating compound.) Extended along a wall is a timeline of artifacts from throughout Ajinomoto’s company history, from Ikeda’s own bottle containing his first extracted crystals of MSG all the way to the company’s most recent offering, a pyramidal packet of Toss Sala, a salad-seasoning mix that packages MSG with dried herbs, croutons, and nuts. At the gift shop, on the other side of the lobby, visitors can purchase an array of products manufactured by the company’s family of brands, including Knorr soup mix, Hello Kitty instant tea, and Amino-Vita, a sports energy drink.

Overlooking all of this is a massive double portrait of Ikeda and Suzuki, the company’s two founders, loftily gazing down on this airy space dedicated to the wonders of savory taste. I went in a true believer and came out with a holy object, a special-edition offering available only to visitors to the Ajinomoto factory: on my kitchen counter, beside my original AjiPanda shaker, a bottle now sits bearing the pink-hued, feminine face of his girlfriend, AjiPanna.

Source: The New Yorker

Grilled Tuna and Eggplant in Kabobs

Ingredients

1 lb fresh tuna steaks, about 1 inch thick, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 long, thin, Japanese-style eggplant

Marinade

grated zest and juice of 1 lime
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano and parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

  1. Place the tuna in a glass bowl, then add all the marinade ingredients. Stir well and leave for at least 1 hour, stirring once or twice.
  2. Half cook the eggplant on the barbecue or under the broiler, until the skin is just starting to wrinkle. Cut into 1/2-inch thick slices.
  3. Thread the tuna and eggplant onto skewers, then brush with the remaining marinade.
  4. Cook over a moderate heat for 5-6 minutes on each side, either on the barbecue or under a broiler, basting with any remaining marinade. Serve with a rice salad.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Cooking with Garlic

Oxalic Acid Foods

Of the various types of kidney stones, the most common are calcium oxalate stones, reports the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. If you’ve been diagnosed with this type of kidney stone, your doctor may advise you to reduce your consumption of oxalic acid-containing foods. Because these foods are also among the healthiest you can eat, however, the recommendation is controversial.

Oxalic Acid and Kidney Stones

Oxalates, or oxalic acid, are compounds that occur naturally in many plants. Your body may also produce oxalic acid if you supplement with large amounts of vitamin C – doses of more than 2,000 milligrams a day. Calcium oxalate kidney stones form when high concentrations of calcium and oxalic acid are excreted in your urine. While some foods containing oxalic acid may promote stone formation in people prone to develop them, the University of British Columbia reports that the bioavailability of oxalic acid – how easily your body absorbs it – is more significant than the actual oxalate content of foods.

High Oxalic Acid Foods

Lists of foods high in oxalic acid vary greatly from source to source. The body is known to absorb oxalic acid from only a handful of foods, according to the University of British Columbia, including peanuts, pecans, wheat bran, spinach, rhubarb, beets and beet greens and chocolate. While other foods are considered high in oxalic acid, studies have not shown that the body readily absorbs their oxalate content. These include soy foods, sweet potatoes, black tea, berries and other dark leafy greens, like Swiss chard and collards. In an article published in the journal “Urologic Nursing” in 2007, registered dietitian Laura R. Flagg concluded that the data on oxalate foods actually causing kidney stones is “insufficient” and discouraged the limiting of these foods for patients with stones.

Reducing Oxalic Acid

Eating oxalic acid foods together with calcium-containing foods such as yogurt, milk and other dairy products may reduce the risk of kidney stone formation, advises the University of Maryland Medical Center. In addition, a study published in 2005 in the “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” reported that several cooking methods help lower the oxalic acid content of vegetables. The researchers tested nine raw and cooked vegetables and found that boiling and steaming significantly reduce oxalic acid in vegetables with a high content of the compound, such as spinach.

Other Considerations

Although the role of diet in stone formation remains unclear, other factors do play a part. Health care professionals generally agree that drinking 2.5 liters or more of water a day, to maintain light-colored urine, decreases your risk of stones. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests squeezing lemon juice into water, which helps boost the citrate levels in the urine and may protect against calcium oxalate stones. In addition, people who get adequate calcium from dietary sources – 1,000 milligrams daily for both men and women – have a lower risk of forming stones than those who don’t. UMMC warns against calcium supplementation, however, and notes that doses above 2,000 milligrams daily have a clear link to stone formation.

Source: SFGATE

Is the Ethylene Gas that is Used to Ripen Tomatoes Quickly in Supermarkets Safe?

Timothy S. Harlan, Dr. Gourmet wrote . . . . . . . .

Ethylene gas is produced naturally by most fruits, such as tomatoes, bananas, peaches, and avocados, and it promotes ripening. Most tomatoes today are picked green and transported unripe to protect them from bruising and spoilage. The green tomatoes are then ripened somewhat artificially by exposing them to ethylene gas. This is generally not done in the supermarket but at the produce distributors that supply local markets.

The early picking, transport and rapid ripening results in the inferior, mealy tomatoes that we have in our grocery stores today. In many cases you are better off using canned tomatoes for cooking than fresh.

It doesn’t appear that there is a danger. Keep in mind that the tomatoes naturally produce ethylene gas and are doing so there in the grocery (and on your kitchen counter). Interestingly, ethylene gas was once used as an anesthetic. Long term exposure to lab animals by ethylene gas did show some increase in risk of cancer, but studies of workers that are involved in professions using the gas do not.

It is very likely that it is just as safe for you to eat tomatoes that have been “gassed” as those that “gas themselves” with ethylene gas.

Source: Dr. Gourmet


Read also:

The Unsavory Story Of Industrially-Grown Tomatoes . . . . .

Get Off the Golf Cart if You Have Knee Osteoarthritis

From presidents to retirees, more than 17 million people over the age of 50 golf regularly. Knee osteoarthritis, which causes swelling, pain and difficulty moving the joint, is one of the leading causes of disability in this age group.

It may seem intuitive that golfers with knee osteoarthritis should stay off their feet and ride in a golf cart. But new research from the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and Northwestern Medicine has found, for the first time, that walking the course provides significantly higher health benefits and is not associated with increased pain, cartilage breakdown or inflammation.

This study is the first comparing the health benefits of walking the golf course versus using a cart, as well as the first to use a blood-based biomarker analysis in knee osteoarthritis during a prolonged sporting event. The findings will be presented April 28 at the Osteoarthritis Research Society International Annual Meeting in Liverpool, England.

The health benefits of golf have decreased as the number of people who ride the course has increased over the past 20 years. In the late 1980s, 45 percent of all rounds of golf were played with a golf cart. By 2006, 69 percent of rounds were played with a cart. During this same time period, activity has decreased among Americans, while obesity has increased.

“Individuals with knee osteoarthritis are often concerned about pain and may be more likely to use a golf cart,” said lead study author Dr. Prakash Jayabalan, a physician scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“However, through sophisticated blood-based biomarker analysis, this study has shown that golfers with knee osteoarthritis do not need to be concerned about worsening their disease through walking the course. In fact, walking provides the best health benefit,” Jayabalan said.

The study, completed in partnership with the Glenview Park District Golf Course in Glenview, Illinois, involved 15 participants — 10 who had knee osteoarthritis and five who were of similar age but did not have the disease. Participants played 18 holes (one round of golf) walking the course and, on a separate day, the same individuals played a round riding a golf cart. The research team compared their heart rates to determine the intensity of exercise performed and took blood samples during each round to measure markers of cartilage stress and inflammation.

The researchers found that, prior to starting either round, the golfers with knee osteoarthritis had an average pain score of 1.3 (on a scale of 0-10). When they played the round walking the course, they had an average 2.1-point increase in pain score. When they played the round using the golf cart, they experienced on average a 1.5-point increase, a difference that is not clinically significant.

The research team also measured blood-based biomarkers of cartilage stress and inflammation. Although both methods of transportation caused an increase in these markers (as would be expected with regular walking), there was no difference between the rounds.

When walking the course, golfers with knee osteoarthritis spent more than 60 percent of the round with heart rates in the moderate intensity heart rate zone. When driving on a cart, golfers spent 30 percent of the round in this range. While this figure is lower, it still fulfills daily exercise recommendations.

Although walking the course offers the most significant health benefits, the study found that riding the course with a golf cart during a round — and the requisite moderate walking that comes with it — still offers cardiovascular benefits and helps fulfill daily exercise guidelines.

“Bottom line: walking the course is significantly better than using a golf cart, but using a golf cart is still better than not exercising at all,” said Jayabalan.

Source: Science Daily


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