When inquired, the eatery operator told me he uses the salt-like item in many food items he prepares, mostly in noodles which we Nepalis popularly call chow mein. Recently at a convenience store I saw a gentleman buying 10 packets of what looked like table salt. The colour of the packets — in red and white — and the quantity in which he was buying them grabbed my attention. I assumed it was something else, not table salt. Then I saw another buyer, who I happen to know for he runs an eatery in my neighbourhood, picking up around eight packets of the same item. When I had a closer look, I realised that it was not regular salt but monosodium glutamate, popularly known as MSG. It is widely referred to as Ajinomoto (AJI-NO-MOTO) in Nepal.
I have heard of MSG since my school days when we were often told about it and its effects on our health. Moreover, food containing MSG, which then was primarily packaged noodles, was prohibited as school tiffin.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to MSG. Some consider it to be highly toxic. Then again, there are others who claim it to be totally harmless. There are many who believe it all depends on the amount of consumption.
MSG is a common flavour enhancer. Food products with MSG may not always mention it, as there are several alternative names for it — modified food starch, modified corn starch, hydrolyzed veg protein, hydrolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed soy to name a few.
A few years back, the government had imposed a temporary ban on the sale and distribution of a well-known noodle brand due to the presence of MSG. According to the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control (DoFTQC), the noodle packets though highlighted “No added MSG”, less than one per cent of the compound was found in the products collected from the market.
The crux of the matter is food products should clearly mention if they contain MSG. On the other hand, there should be general awareness among the consumers about the chemical(s) in the food products they consume.
It is also important that the concerned authorities define guidelines and monitor the use of MSG. Since there are various arguments surrounding MSG — some claiming it to be harmful while others saying it is safe — raising awareness about it and other chemicals is the key.
A version of this article appears in print on November 29, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.