Some things just set me off.
While I am aware that scientific studies now suggest that none of the "tastes" actually exist (see the new Gourmet article), I am a big fan of the idea of umami, the so called fifth taste. Even if tastes don't exist as such, I love those foods loaded with the sensations associated with Umami. I even wrote a spec article for a proposed magazine on my favorite source of umami - Fish Sauce, my secret ingredient! I have posted it online here.
Janice Okun, the esteemed food editor of our local paper, wrote a commentary on umami this week. I did not agree with everything, but at least it brought the subject up for discussion. In her usual casual tone she had one statement that might be misinterpreted: "umami is also available commercially in monosodium glutamate . . ." This was quickly jumped on in a letter to the editors of the News:
Perhaps readers ought to thank Janice Okun for introducing us to umami — inasmuch as it is contained in MSG, a toxic substance for many — in her Aug. 6 column. We can now be on alert for what the use of umami might indicate, namely, foods containing monosodium glutamate. But Okun’s mentioning that MSG is “said to be” the cause of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, or worse” is not enough to offset her praise for this additive, which can trigger, among other problems, excruciating pain for many migraine sufferers. Moreover, high-quality and well-prepared foods simply do not require it.
Umami is not a substance. It cannot be bought, sold, traded, consumed or inhaled. It is a proposed fifth taste, along with hot, sour, salty and sweet.
The umami taste has been traced to the concentration of glutamic acid in the substance. It is especially present in aged or fermented foods, and the foods that I crave are usually high in umami. MSG is simply the extracted salt of that glutamic acid.
I am not a shill for the MSG industry, and I don't use it in my own cooking, but there are no impartial studies which show that MSG (or the many prepared foods which contain MSG under a variety of pseudonyms) causes the so called "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome". Dr Andrew Weil recently stated that ". . . overall the studies have produced no evidence linking MSG with any serious reactions".
I leave my mind open to the possibility of an allergy like reaction for a few people who are especially sensitive, but calling it a "toxic substance" is just fear mongering.
Sounds like a letter to the Editor . . .