Tag Archives: MSG

Fast food review: Chili Cheese Nachos at Wendy’s

In a word: delicious.  While you can only get it in Canada, us Canadians miss out on certain US-specific menu items like spicy chicken nuggets.  And I think I would enjoy this over spicy chicken.

chili cheese nachos

Why this is tasty

These aren’t even the world’s greatest ingredients.  It’s your regular nachos, Wendy’s chili, and some weird liquid processed cheese.  But I gotta say… it is a food combination that works very well.  You have the meaty flavour of the chili with the added kick of the umami/MSG-ness of yeast extract.  And the “cheese” (if you can call it that) provides the rich taste of fat.  And there is the salty taste of salt.  Meat, MSG, saltiness… these are all classic flavours that human beings enjoy.

How it’s put together

This creation has some weird ingredients that your grandmother would never use.

Xanthan gum: This is a thickener that prevents the chili from being runny.  It’s the same idea as adding flour or cornstarch.

Yeast extract: It’s like MSG.

Silicon dioxide: It’s an anti-thickening agent apparently.  Note that silicon dioxide is the main ingredient in sand.  This is sand… the difference being that it is very fine sand.

Natural flavourings: I have no idea what these are.  However, I like how the list of ingredients includes the names of many natural flavourings (e.g. sugar, onion powder, garlic powder) yet suddenly the flavourings stop being named.  These are probably similar to their “artificial flavour” counterparts, except that said chemicals are derived in a “natural” way (see this article for more information).

Sodium phosphate: According to a site I found on Google… “An emulsifier [e.g. sodium phosphate] is added to allow for the uniform dispersion of two or more ingredients that would otherwise be immiscible. The most common specific purpose of an emulsifier is to prevent oil from separating from the rest of the mixture. Sodium phosphate is commonly added as an emulsifying agent to processed cheeses, processed meats and canned soups.”

Knowing all this, I would still eat this.  Nom nom nom.

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All about MSG (monosodium glutamate)

Chemically, MSG is a salt.  Like common table salt, MSG contains a single sodium atom.  Whereas table salt is attached to a chlorine atom, MSG is attached to glutamate.  Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid that gives MSG its (delicious) flavor enhancing properties.  Its “savoury” flavour is sometimes referred to as the fifth taste and is called umami by the Japanese.

MSG is a molecule that comes in 2 different versions that are mirror images of each other (e.g. like how your hands are mirror images of each other).  Its the L-glutamate version that has flavour enhancing properties.

Is MSG safe?

I don’t know the full answer.  To quote a FDA backgrounder on MSG:

A 1995 report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an independent body of scientists, helps put these safety concerns into perspective and reaffirms the Food and Drug Administration’s belief that MSG and related substances are safe food ingredients for most people when eaten at customary levels.

The FASEB report identifies two groups of people who may develop a condition the report refers to as “MSG symptom complex.”  One group is those who may be intolerant to MSG when eaten in a large quantity.  The second is a group of people with severe, poorly controlled asthma,  These people, in addition to being prone to MSG symptom complex, may suffer temporary worsening of asthmatic symptoms after consuming MSG.  The MSG dosage that produced reactions in these people ranged from 0.5 grams to 2.5 grams. 
http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/additives/footnotes/17.pdf

To keep things in perspective, not every food is ideal for everybody out there.  There are people with allergies and/or food intolerances to common foods like:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Citrus fruits
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soya
  • Wheat (actually only the gluten in wheat, which can be removed)

In my opinion, most of the fears over MSG are overblown.  However, if you don’t feel great after eating MSG then maybe you should avoid it and/or see if you suffer from “MSG symptom complex”.  Otherwise, I don’t think there’s a problem with MSG.

Also, note that glutamates do naturally occur in foods.  These foods are often used in Japanese cooking, e.g. seaweed used in broths.  Other foods like tomatoes, some cheeses like Parmesan, and some mushrooms also contain high levels of glutamates.  It may also explain why those particular ingredients tend to be very popular in the foods we eat and why they taste good.

 Crouching tiger, hidden glutamate

A number of other food additives have similar effects to MSG as they also contain glutamates.  On ingredient labels they will be called names like hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extract, and protein isolate.  For example, Taco Bell’s seasoned “beef” contains autolyzed yeast extract as well as a large number of other ingredients.  (For those who don’t know: Taco Bell was criticized for advertising its beef as beef because less than 35% of it is actual beef.)

So now you know!

P.S. Taco Bell’s fries supreme is delicious… despite not having a lot of actual beef. It’s those darn umami-licious glutamates.  Mmm… fries supreme. But I still can’t believe those assholes took out the green onions.

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