The challenge with food research and food trends

Quartz has a great piece today on “Monosodium Glutamate” or MSG. Here’s the summary –

Imagine a magic powder—colorless, odorless, and tasteless on its own—that you can sprinkle onto any savory food to make it taste even more amazing. Where could we possibly find this pixie dust of deliciousness?

In fact, it’s all around us. Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is a natural component of foods from tomatoes to peas to walnuts, and appears in extra-high levels in foods that have been fermented or aged: think of flavor bombs like miso, parmigiano cheese, or preserved fish. For the last hundred years, it’s also been available dirt-cheap in the form of sparkly little crystals. And that’s where the story gets interesting.

The invention of pure MSG in 1908 set the stage for a global revolution in food, as the additive became a staple in Asian households and Western food processing facilities alike. Then, a few decades ago, MSG fell victim to a massive backlash, prompted by shoddy science and more than a little racism.

We’re only now starting to emerge from the scary days of glutamate hysteria, thanks to chefs like David Chang, and it may not be long before those tasty flavor crystals reclaim their rightful place next to the salt and pepper shakers. 

I grew up in India at a time when MSG and, thus, Chinese restaurants had a bad rap. I had no idea that this was called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in the US and wasn’t aware of the racism involved. Anthony Bourdain put it well when he said – “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Racism.”

This story speaks to the challenge with food research and food trends. I have definitely seen this with Indian cuisine. There was a time when coconut oil (a staple where we are from) was labelled “bad” thanks to some shoddy science. Then, coconut oil became “in” again. There are multiple other examples.

As a result, I tend to view any new research on food with a large dose of skepticism. Food has a Darwinian nature to it – anything that survives many generations has survived for a reason. The problems we face tend to be due to new, often synthetic, additions to the diet whose effects aren’t well understood.