How Tomato Sauce Can Boost Your Gut Health

Maria Cohut wrote . . . . . . . .

If like me, you enjoy the occasional bowl of pasta with fresh tomato sauce, then I’ve got great news for you. Research fresh out of the pan has found that cooked tomato sauce helps to improve the activity of probiotics in the gut.

Does tomato sauce boost gut health? And if so, should we choose raw or cooked?

Over the past few years, researchers and consumers alike have been taking interest in whether or not the foods that eventually reach our tables are “functional.” But what are functional foods?

“All foods are functional to some extent because all foods provide taste, aroma, and nutritive value,” explains researcher Clare Hasler in a Journal of Nutrition article.

“However,” she goes on to clarify, “foods are now being examined intensively for added physiologic benefits, which may reduce chronic disease risk or otherwise optimize health.” And those foods seen to bring specific health benefits are deemed “functional.”

Probiotic foods — such as certain types of yogurt, kefir, or kimchi — fall into this category, as they boost the population of good bacteria in our guts, which contribute to our overall health in many ways.

Now, however, researchers from the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain are looking at how gut bacteria interact with antioxidants in the gut.

Specifically, senior researcher Ana Belén Heredia and her team were interested in seeing how tomato sauce — rich in antioxidants — would behave in the presence of good bacteria in the gut.

And, since tomato sauce can be served raw or cooked, they wanted to understand what effect this would have on the antioxidant-gut bacteria interaction.

Antioxidants and probiotics

Tomatoes are considered a healthful food because, among other things, they contain a pigment called lycopene — an antioxidant that helps to protect cells from damaging factors. Existing research also suggests that tomatoes have probiotic properties — that is, that they can boost the activity of healthful bacteria in the gut.

In the current study, the research team conducted in vitro experiments to see how Lactobacillus reuteri — one of the main bacterial species that contribute to gut health — would interact with antioxidants derived from tomato sauce, and how the cooking process would influence that interaction.

For this purpose, the researchers chose to use pear tomatoes, as they have a higher content of lycopene.

“We have evaluated the viability of the probiotic strain along the digestive process individually and the presence of antioxidants from vegetable sources, as well as the impact of the probiotic strain on the changes suffered by antioxidant compounds and the resulting bioaccessibility,” explains Heredia.

Cooked or raw?

The results of their experiments — now published in the Journal of Functional Foods — indicate that the digestive process resulted in a loss of antioxidants, both in the case of raw and cooked (fried) tomato sauce.

Also, the presence of L. reuteri appeared to prevent some of the antioxidants from being absorbed into the blood system.

At the same time, however, the research team found that the antioxidants from the tomato sauce enhanced the positive effects of L. reuteri. And in this context, cooked tomato sauce appeared to be more effective than the raw equivalent.

Cooking the sauce also transformed the lycopene present in the tomato — a process known as cis-trans isomerization — which actually helped to preserve the integrity of this antioxidant through the digestive process, allowing more of it to be absorbed.

“We worked with raw and fried tomato to determine the impact of processing,” notes Heredia.

“And among the results, we found that serving meals rich in probiotics with fried tomato sauce boosts its probiotic effect; as well as causing a progressive isomerization of the lycopene of the tomato, from form cis to trans throughout digestion, which positively results in an increased final bioaccessibility of this carotenoid.”

These results suggest that, when assessing foods for health benefits, it is important to look not only at the effects that cooking may have on them — by submitting their components to various chemical transformations — but also at the impact of the digestive process on these nutrients.

An increased awareness of both of these effects, the researchers argue, would allow companies in the food industry to create truly “functional” foods that can boost our health.

Source: Medical News Today


University Scientists Make Plant-based Vitamin B12 Breakthrough

Sandy Fleming wrote . . . . . . .

Scientists have made a significant discovery about how the vitamin content of some plants can be improved to make vegetarian and vegan diets more complete.

Vitamin B12 (known as cobalamin) is an essential dietary component but vegetarians are more prone to B12 deficiency as plants neither make nor require this nutrient.

But now a team, led by Professor Martin Warren at the University’s School of Biosciences, has proved that common garden cress can indeed take up cobalamin.

The amount of B12 absorbed by garden cress is dependent on the amount present in the growth medium, and the Kent team was able to confirm B12 uptake by showing that the nutrient ends up in the leaf.

The observation that certain plants are able to absorb B12 is important as such nutrient-enriched plants could help overcome dietary limitations in countries such as India, which have a high proportion of vegetarians and may be significant as a way to address the global challenge of providing a nutrient-complete vegetarian diet, a valuable development as the world becomes increasingly meat-free due to population expansion.

The Kent scientists worked with biology teachers and year 11 and 12 pupils at Sir Roger Manwood’s School in Sandwich to investigate the detection and measurement of B12 in garden cress.

The pupils grew garden cress containing increasing concentrations of vitamin B12. After seven days growth, the leaves from the seedlings were removed, washed and analysed.

The seedlings were found to absorb cobalamin from the growth medium and to store it in their leaves. To confirm this initial observation, the scientists at Kent then made a type of vitamin B12 that emits fluorescent light when activated by a laser. This fluorescent B12 was fed to the plants and it was found to accumulate within a specialised part of the leaf cell called a vacuole, providing definitive evidence that some plants can absorb and transport cobalamin.

Vitamin B12 is unique among the vitamins because it is made only by certain bacteria and therefore has to undergo a journey to make its way into more complex multi-cellular organisms. The research described in the paper highlights how this journey can be followed using the fluorescent B12 molecules, which can also be used to help understand why some people are more prone to B12 deficiency.

The discovery also has implications for combating some parasitic infections. Not only did the researchers demonstrate that some plants can absorb vitamin B12, they were also able to use the same technique to follow the movement of fluorescent B12 molecules into worms. These results demonstrate that this is a powerful model to learn about how B12 is absorbed and, as worms must use a different absorption system to mammalian systems, there is the possibility of exploiting this difference to try and treat worm-based parasites such as hook worms.

The research is now published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology.

Source: University of Kent

Read also:

Good news for vegetarians – plants can be made to absorb B12 . . . . .

World Health Organization Plan to Eliminate Industrially-produced Trans-fatty Acids from Global Food Supply

WHO today released REPLACE, a step-by-step guide for the elimination of industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the global food supply.

Eliminating trans fats is key to protecting health and saving lives: WHO estimates that every year, trans fat intake leads to more than 500,000 deaths of people from cardiovascular disease.

Industrially-produced trans fats are contained in hardened vegetable fats, such as margarine and ghee, and are often present in snack food, baked foods, and fried foods. Manufacturers often use them as they have a longer shelf life than other fats. But healthier alternatives can be used that would not affect taste or cost of food.

“WHO calls on governments to use the REPLACE action package to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the food supply,”said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Implementing the six strategic actions in the REPLACE package will help achieve the elimination of trans fat, and represent a major victory in the global fight against cardiovascular disease.”

REPLACE provides six strategic actions to ensure the prompt, complete, and sustained elimination of industrially-produced trans fats from the food supply:

REview dietary sources of industrially-produced trans fats and the landscape for required policy change.

Promote the replacement of industrially-produced trans fats with healthier fats and oils.

Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially-produced trans fats.

Assess and monitor trans fats content in the food supply and changes in trans fat consumption in the population.

Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans fats among policy makers, producers, suppliers, and the public.

Enforce compliance of policies and regulations.

Several high-income countries have virtually eliminated industrially-produced trans fats through legally imposed limits on the amount that can be contained in packaged food. Some governments have implemented nationwide bans on partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of industrially-produced trans fats.

In Denmark, the first country to mandate restrictions on industrially-produced trans fats, the trans fat content of food products declined dramatically and cardiovascular disease deaths declined more quickly than in comparable OECD countries.

“New York City eliminated industrially-produced trans fat a decade ago, following Denmark’s lead,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies. “Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed.”

Action is needed in low- and middle-income countries, where controls of use of industrially-produced trans fats are often weaker, to ensure that the benefits are felt equally around the world.

WHO Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases, Michael R. Bloomberg, a three-term mayor of New York city and the founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, said: “Banning trans fats in New York City helped reduce the number of heart attacks without changing the taste or cost of food, and eliminating their use around the world can save millions of lives. A comprehensive approach to tobacco control allowed us to make more progress globally over the last decade than almost anyone thought possible – now, a similar approach to trans fat can help us make that kind of progress against cardiovascular disease, another of the world’s leading causes of preventable death.”

Elimination of industrially-produced trans fats from the global food supply has been identified as one of the priority targets of WHO’s strategic plan, the draft 13th General Programme of Work (GPW13) which will guide the work of WHO in 2019 – 2023. GPW13 is on the agenda of the 71st World Health Assembly that will be held in Geneva on 21 – 26 May 2018. As part of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, the global community has committed to reducing premature death from noncommunicable diseases by one-third by 2030. Global elimination of industrially-produced trans fats can help achieve this goal.

“Why should our children have such an unsafe ingredient in their foods?” asks Dr Tedros. “The world is now embarking on the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, using it as a driver for improved access to healthy food and nutrition. WHO is also using this milestone to work with governments, the food industry, academia and civil society to make food systems healthier for future generations, including by eliminating industrially-produced trans fats.”


There are two main sources for trans fats: natural sources (in the dairy products and meat of ruminants such as cows and sheep) and industrially-produced sources (partially hydrogenated oils).

Partially hydrogenated oils were first introduced into the food supply in the early 20th century as a replacement for butter, and became more popular in the 1950s through 1970s with the discovery of the negative health impacts of saturated fatty acids. Partially hydrogenated oils are primarily used for deep frying and as an ingredient in baked goods; they can be replaced in both.

WHO recommends that the total trans fat intake be limited to less than 1% of total energy intake, which translates to less than 2.2 g/day with a 2,000-calorie diet. Trans fats increases levels of LDL-cholesterol, a well-accepted biomarker for cardiovascular disease risk, and decreases levels of HDL-cholesterol, which carry away cholesterol from arteries and transport it to the liver, that secretes it into the bile. Diets high in trans fat increase heart disease risk by 21% and deaths by 28%. Replacing trans fats with unsaturated fatty acids decreases the risk of heart disease, in part, by ameliorating the negative effects of trans fats on blood lipids. In addition, there are indications that trans fat may increase inflammation and endothelial dysfunction.

From 4 May-1 June 2018, WHO is running an online public consultation to review updated draft guidelines on the intake of trans-fatty acids saturated fatty acids for adult and children.

Source: Whole Health Organization

Watch video at You Tube (1:54 minutes) . . . . .

Oxalate (Oxalic Acid) and Its Relation with Nutrition and Health

From the World’s Healthiest Foods . . . . . . . .


While many people think about oxalates as some rare and undesirable component of food, oxalates are naturally-occurring substances found in a wide variety of foods and they play a supportive role in the metabolism of many plants and animals and in our human metabolism as well. So in terms of our overall health and diet, oxalates are neither rare nor undesirable. (For persons interested in the chemical nature of oxalates, these substances are strong acids constructed out of two carboxylic acids, usually abbreviated in biochemistry as COOH groups.) It is also worth noting here that in a practical and non-technical sense, “oxalate” and “oxalic acid” are two different terms for the same substance.

Oxalates can sometimes become problematic, however, if they overaccumulate inside our body. The key site for problems with overaccumulation is our kidneys. If the concentration of oxalates in our urine becomes too high, simultaneous with an overly high concentration of calcium, our kidneys are at risk of calcium oxalate kidney stone formation due to supersaturation of our urine with calcium oxalate salts. Worldwide, 5-15% of all persons are estimated to develop some form of kidney stones, with calcium oxalate stones accounting for about 80% of all stones formed.

Non-food sources of oxalates

Even if we did not eat oxalate-containing foods, we would still have oxalates in our body since we are able to make them in a variety of ways. (In fact, only 20-40% of the oxalates in our blood come from the foods we eat.) Our “internal” ways of making oxalates include:

(1) creating them from amino acids like hydroxyproline in our liver;
(2) taking vitamin C and transforming it into oxalate; and
(3) having our red blood cells synthesize oxalates from glyoxylate.

Because oxalates can be created from amino acids in our liver, and because proteins are constructed out of amino acids, the total amount of protein that we eat may sometimes be related to the amount of oxalates that are formed using this amino acid pathway.

However, in research studies on healthy persons not at special risk of kidney stone formation, high levels of protein intake nearing 150 grams per day have failed to consistently show increased levels of urinary oxalates or increased risk of kidney stone formation. It is persons already known to have problems with kidney stone formation who have been shown to be affected by high protein intake, with about one-third of “stone formers” getting unwanted increases in their urinary oxalate levels in conjunction with a high protein diet. We mention this protein issue not to try and provide treatment recommendations for persons with kidney stone problems—that step is one that should be taken with a healthcare provider—but to give an example of the way that oxalates can be made inside of our body and why dietary sources of pre-formed oxalate only tell one part of the story here.

It’s worth noting that studies on vitamin C supplementation have shown mixed results in terms of their impact on risk of kidney stone formation. Several studies show increased oxalate excretion following vitamin C supplementation. However, some of these same studies show decreased urinary calcium oxalate supersaturation and decreased risk of stone formation. So, the jury is still out on the exact set of relationships here.

Food sources of oxalates

As mentioned earlier, about 20-40% of the oxalates in our bloodstream come from preformed oxalates in our food. While oxalates are found in both plant and animal foods, plant foods have long been the research focus here since some plants have especially high concentrations. Among foods that we do not profile on our website, rhubarb is the most concentrated source of preformed oxalates and contains between 450-650 milligrams in about 3-1/2 ounces. Chocolate can also be a concentrated source, with the oxalate content increasing along with the percentage of cocoa contained in the chocolate. An average for 76% cocoa chocolate bars is approximately 250 milligrams per 3-1/2 ounces. But this amount can nearly double in a chocolate bar that is 100% cocoa.

Among foods that we profile on our website, the most concentrated oxalate sources (all listed in terms of milligrams per 3-1/2 ounces) include spinach (750-800 mg), beet greens (600-950 mg), almonds (380-470 mg), Swiss chard (200-640 mg), cashews (230-260 mg), and peanuts (140-184 mg). It is important to note that you will often find very different results in plant oxalate content due to differences in varieties, planting conditions, harvesting conditions, and measurement technique. It is also worth pointing out that the leaves of plants almost always contain higher oxalate levels than the roots, stems, and stalks.

Other oxalate-containing foods (listed in milligrams of oxalate per 3-1/2 ounces) include:

  • other green leafy vegetables not found in the high-oxalate examples above (5-150 mg)
  • berries, which typically contain between 10-50 mg (with the important exception of gooseberries which can contain 60-90 mg)
  • lemon and lime peel (80-110 mg)
  • nuts besides the high-oxalate nuts listed earlier (40-350 mg)
  • legumes (10-75 mg): with legumes, it is also worth noting that lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas, and garbanzo beans tend to fall at the lower end of this already-low spectrum with 10 mg or sometimes even less, while black beans, navy beans and soybeans tend to fall at the upper end of this low spectrum with 50 mg or more)
  • grain flours (40-250 mg): with grains and grain products, it is worth noting that brown rice flour and brown rice pastas are among the lowest in oxalate content
  • pasta noodles (made from grains) (20-30 mg)

In addition to this highlighted list above, it is worth nothing that most fruits and vegetables contain measurable amounts of oxalates in the small-to-moderate range. We’ve seen studies on grapes, for example, showing 3-5 mg; pineapple 5 mg; plums 10 mg; collards 5-75 mg; celery 11-20 mg; and green beans 15 mg. Okra is a vegetable that usually shows up higher on the oxalate scale at 140-150 mg. Parsley is also worth mentioning here at about 100 mg.

One final note about the oxalate content of lemons and limes: as indicated above, the peels of these fruits have been analyzed as high in oxalate content. However, the juice of these fruits (e.g., lemon and lime juice) is not only low in oxalates, but also high in other organic acids called citrates. Research suggests that the high citrate content in lemon and lime juice might actually help lower risk of calcium oxalate kidney stone formation. By binding together with calcium in place of oxalates, citrates can help reduce risk of urine supersaturation with calcium oxalate.

Oxalates and health

Two aspects of oxalates have been extensively studied from a health perspective: their relationship to kidney stone formation and their relationship to calcium absorption and metabolism.

Kidney Stone Formation

In research studies, some individuals have been shown to be “hyperabsorbers” of oxalate from the intestinal tract. In other words, their bodies uptake more oxalate than would normally be expected. In principle, the greater the amount of oxalate that gets absorbed into the body, the greater the amount that will reach the kidneys and raise the level of urinary oxalates. When combined with high levels of urinary calcium, there can be increased risk of calcium oxalate kidney stone formation.

Unfortunately, this general description oversimplifies what turns out to be a fascinating and more complicated set of bodily circumstances. First, oxalate only gets absorbed from our digestive tract when it is in soluble form. Sodium oxalate and potassium oxalate are the predominant soluble forms. By contract, calcium oxalate is insoluble, and magnesium oxalate is poorly soluble. So the form of the oxalate is important in the absorption process.

Second, our gut bacteria turn out to play a critical role in the amount of oxalate available for absorption since numerous species of gut bacteria are able to break down oxalate. These species include Oxalobacter formigenes, numerous species of Lactobacillus, and several species of Bifidobacteria. In fact, a good number of studies are underway to investigate the role of oral probiotic supplements and their impact on oxalate absorption.

Third, research has shown that the overall combination of foods that we eat during a meal (including both oxalate-containing and non-oxalate-containing foods) can significantly impact the amount of soluble oxalates available for absorption from our digestive tract. We’ve seen a study on Indian cuisine, for example, in which multiple-ingredient dishes like spinach (palak) also containing Indian cottage cheese (paneer) lowered the amount of soluble oxalates available for absorption by about 15-20%. So, as you can see, the relationship between dietary intake of oxalates and oxalate absorption is complicated. In general, since only 20-40% of blood oxalates originate from food, and since 85-95% of individual show no tendency to form calcium oxalate kidney stones, we don’t expect most people to have kidney stone-related problems from routine enjoyment of the foods that we profile at WHFoods.

Calcium Metabolism

An ongoing controversy in oxalate research involves the degree to which food oxalates interfere with calcium absorption from those foods. In general, calcium can be a somewhat difficult mineral to absorb from food. Even at very low levels of dietary intake—in which case you might expect the absorption rate to increase—calcium only tends to be absorbed at a rate of about 35%. But this generalized rate of absorption can vary dramatically from food to food, and the presence of oxalates in food is definitely a dietary factor that lowers calcium absorption (through the formation of insoluble calcium oxalate salts).

However, two further considerations cause us not to be worried in a broad sense about interference with calcium absorption from oxalates. First is the nature of the public health recommendations for calcium. These recommendations—like all nutrient recommendations—take the realities of absorption into account. At WHFoods, for example, our recommended daily intake level for calcium is 1,000 milligrams. This recommended level factors in the amount of calcium absorption from different foods, including foods like spinach that contain high levels of oxalates.

Second is the research on different populations or population subgroups that eat different mixtures of plant and animal foods. Studies show individuals who eat largely plant-based diets (i.e., vegetarians) do not have greater calcium deficiency or increased risk of osteoporosis, which you might predict if substances like oxalates were impairing calcium absorption in a way that would create a health risk. Calcium is definitely not absorbed as well from oxalate-containing versus non-oxalate-containing foods, but from our perspective this difference does not make intake of oxalate-containing foods either irrelevant or counter-productive in terms of their impact on calcium status. We therefore continue to recommend enjoyment of all WHFoods fruits and vegetables as worthwhile contributors to calcium intake, including those with higher oxalate concentrations.

Uncommon conditions that require strict oxalate restriction

There are some relatively rare health conditions that do require strict oxalate restriction. These conditions include absorptive hypercalciuria type II, enteric hyperoxaluria, and primary hyperoxaluria. Dietary oxalates are usually restricted to 50 milligrams per day under these circumstances.

The effect of cooking on oxalates

Cooking has a relatively small impact on the oxalate content of foods. In fact, we’ve seen one recent study examining oxalate changes in 20 different green leafy vegetables in cooked versus raw form which found no significant changes for any of the 20 vegetables. We’ve also seen studies that have focused on the blanching or boiling of green leafy vegetables and these studies show little to no decrease in oxalate content. At the very most, you should not expect more than a 5-15% decrease in oxalate content from the cooking of a high-oxalate food. For all of the above reasons, it does not make sense to us for you to consider overcooking an oxalate-rich food for the purpose of reducing its oxalate content. Research studies have made it clear that overcooking results in the loss of many different vitamins and minerals, and so the end result of overcooking is very likely to be a much less nutritious diet that is only minimally lower in oxalates.

Practical take-away

For the vast majority of individuals who are not at special risk of calcium oxalate kidney stone formation—or do not have any of the rare health conditions that require strict oxalate restriction—oxalate-containing foods should not be a health concern. Under most circumstances, high oxalate foods like spinach (including both baby and larger leafed mature spinach) can be enjoyed either raw or cooked and incorporated into a weekly or daily meal plan. For persons with health histories that make kidney stones a health concern, we recommend consultation with a healthcare provider to develop a diet plan and take other steps that can lower individual health risks.

Source: The World’s Healthiest Foods

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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