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Myths and Misconceptions: MSG

Every week I see dozens of myths and misunderstandings about food and our company come across my desk, confused thoughts ranging from "Everything Whole Foods sells is organic" to "Canola oil is a secret poison" to "Whole Foods Market is owned by Paul Newman." This is the first in a series of posts aimed at sharing - and clearing up - some of the more popular misunderstandings floating around out there. Through these examples, I'd like to illustrate the lengths we go to "do the homework" about natural foods and to make sure that there's nothing in our products that you'd be surprised to find there. If you have any particular questions or topics you want to see covered, post a comment down below and let me know what you want to hear about.

Who we are and what we do Look around near the doors of any one of our stores and you'll likely find our commitment to "Selling the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Products Available" painted directly on the wall. This promise, the first of our company's core values, seems simple at first glance, but becomes complicated once you start to consider the words "natural" and "organic" and what they really mean. I'll save "organic" for another post, but what does "natural" mean, and who decides? Well, we do, and we take the job very seriously. I work as part of our Global Quality Standards Team. We set the company's standards for what we sell in our stores, including food ingredients, body care products, dietary supplements, meat, seafood, and virtually every other category of products in our stores. Our jobs are a sort of a hybrid of food science, chemistry and philosophy, as we review the ingredients, products and practices that go into our products. We're not just studying the nitty gritty of how the ingredients are made, but how they fit into our belief that minimally processed food is better, and our promise to only sell natural food. We consider ourselves buying agents for our customers, rather than as sales agents for our suppliers, which in my mind is one of the best descriptions of what we do. Our work always starts with our promise to sell "the highest quality natural and organic products;" no matter how deep we get into the chemistry of how a given ingredient is made, the questions we're trying to answer are "is this natural" and "would our shoppers be surprised to find this in a natural product?" Is it natural? How is it made? How is it extracted? Is it legal? Is it safe? Our buyers and stores are only allowed to bring in products that meet our strict standards.

Myth: There's Hidden MSG lurking in our aisles And now to this post's aforementioned myth and/or misconception: Ever since the TV show 60 Minutes aired a story about MSG in the early 1990s, we've been getting calls and emails from customers concerned that there's secret MSG hidden behind our labels. The short answer is that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an unacceptable ingredient at Whole Foods Market, thus not allowed in any of our products. We don't allow it because it's an artificial flavor enhancer that's inconsistent with the idea of natural food. But the ongoing confusion about the ingredient is complicated, and requires us to look at some of the chemicals responsible for food tasting good. The term "glutamate" refers to a number of forms of glutamic acid, an amino acid found naturally in many foods (and in our bodies). Cheese, milk, meat, peas, seaweed and mushrooms are a few of the foods containing the highest levels of natural glutamate, and this substance is largely responsible for the phenomenon of umami, the "fifth taste" of savory, meaty foods. In fact, the discovery of the link between glutamates and savory flavors led the Japanese food scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 to the commercial development of monosodium glutamate. MSG is a synthetically derived and highly concentrated flavor enhancer that is almost completely made up of glutamates. It's so powerful that just a few drops can drastically change the flavor of a dish. As the 60Minutes story exposed, it's also so powerfully concentrated that it can cause severe reactions in people who are hypersensitive to it. While the scientific basis of the set of symptoms known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" has been debated and doubted by many, the phenomenon has caused a lot of people to carefully and diligently avoid MSG. A number of consumer groups have claimed that certain food ingredients, such as autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, are MSG in disguise. They are not. Autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed proteins, among other ingredients, are completely natural ingredients that happen to be have substantial amounts of glutamates, but nowhere near the concentration found in MSG. While a small subset of people may be sensitive to even these small levels of glutamate, these ingredients are always clearly identified on the labels so that, as with all food sensitivities and allergies, people can be aware of ingredients they'd like to avoid. These are natural ingredients that are definitely of grave concern for people who are sensitive to them, but they are not MSG. We draw a clear line between natural glutamate-containing foods, which we allow, and highly concentrated MSG, which we don't.

For further MSG reading: The New York Times ran a good story on this issue back in March, although I wish they'd made a clearer distinction between MSG and the other glutamate containing additives. Jordan Sands article "A Short History of MSG: Good Science, Bad Science, and Taste Cultures" appeared in the Fall 2005 Issue of Gastronomica (my very favorite food magazine). It's not available online, but I'd recommend getting your hands on it if you can - hopefully your library has a copy floating around.