MSG: Sri Lanka's ignored eating out problem

Fines in Australia, fine in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka the side effects of MSG are not highlighted to the consumers at all, and this is in contrast to practices in Australia etc., which are highlighted below. There are also no regulations of any sort. The restaurants are given free rein in regard to MSG and most of them add MSG at high quantity to get the taste. The public because they are in the dark about these matters consume these foods without much thought.

Australia's use of MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is well within international standards, according to the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. The State government has enforced regulations and restaurants would face fines if they failed to tell diners they have used "tasteless salt"(MSG)

Consumers have no way of knowing how much, or how little, processed free glutamic acid (MSG) there is in any processed food. Most food labeling regulations call for ingredient labeling. Corn, salt, rye, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed soy protein, chicken, enzymes, and monosodium glutamate are examples of names of ingredients. But processed free glutamic acid (MSG), like fat and cholesterol, is usually a component or constituent of an ingredient, not an ingredient. So although the amount of processed free glutamic acid (MSG) could be listed on food labels just like fat and cholesterol are listed, there are no regulations requiring that the amount of processed free glutamic acid (MSG) in processed food be given.

Current FDA regulations also allow certain MSG-containing ingredients to be included under the label descriptors "flavour(s)", "flavouring(s)", "natural flavour(s)", and "natural flavouring(s)" without disclosure of the processed free glutamic acid (MSG) in them, or even mention of the ingredients' names.

By Ishani Ranasinghe and Esther Williams
Eating out invariably means Chinese Food for most people. Mouth-watering items such as Deep fried cuttle fish in hot garlic sauce, Manchurian chicken or sweet and sour prawn are so very satisfying, never failing to make that meal, so very special. Interestingly enough, even though there have been reports of the ill effects of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), an additive in most Chinese foods, people choose to ignore it. How can anything that tastes so good, cause harm?

Ajinomoto has an amazing ability to make certain foods taste better. Originally this was made from a natural seaweed, but currently a chemical substitute Monosodium Glutamate or MSG is universally used instead. It is made up of two parts of sodium (salt) and glutamate which is a common amino acid, found naturally in many foods besides seaweed such as meat, fish, poultry, tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. Its taste enhancing skills are so great that it is considered the fifth taste sensation after sweet, sour, salt and bitter.

The first people to discover the use of this material were the Chinese and Japanese who more than 1500 years ago learned that foods cooked in a fish stock made from the seaweed 'Laminaria Japonica' tasted good. It came to the attention of the Americans when the Second World War ended. They had discovered that the badly undernourished Japanese soldiers maintained remarkably high levels of energy during the war. Although this may have been inaccurate research, the Americans were convinced that MSG would make them more intelligent, improve their memory, make them more fertile and even add to their life-span. Before long it became a household name, used as frequently as salt and pepper.

The bubble burst in 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok reported in a medical journal the strange set of symptoms that occurred whenever he ate Chinese food. This was followed by a host of other reports that supported the notion that MSG was really bad for us. They called it the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome - an array of symptoms associated with eating a Chinese meal in which excess MSG has been used. These range from facial pressure, Chest pain and a burning sensation to MSG-induced Asthma. MSG intolerance can trigger symptoms in people suffering from an irritable bowel, stomach bloating, nausea, diarrhoea , migraine and hives. In children it is supposed to cause hyper-activity.

MSG was thus blamed for a variety of health problems. The Americans chose to ignore that they consumed more natural MSG from a meal of Steak, tomatoes, potatoes, sour cream and ice cream, than they would find in a Chinese meal.

In the recent years, this substance has undergone a great deal of international scrutiny and debate. Reports state that the US has one group so emotionally involved with the subject that its members occasionally threaten to burn down factories that add MSG to their soups or other products.

Two self-professed food activists in England threatened to pour petrol on their bodies and burn themselves to death if their supermarket continued to buy products that contained it. In Germany, on of the most vocal and powerful political movements is attempting to ban its use. Taking advantage of this, several major food processors have started boasting in bold letters on their packages that their products are free of MSG.

Agreeing that it is a controversial issue, Mr. Nagiah, Assistant Director, Food Control, Ministry of Health, says, "MSG is an internationally approved food additive." He however states that the absence of scientific evidence of the ill effects of MSG has allowed the product to stay in the market. The theories that have been formed are hypothetical, he insists.

Having said that, one might wonder in what proportion it is really used, if at all, in the Chinese food outlets that we frequent. Trans Asia's chef Bohiao Juan says that he uses Chicken powder instead of MSG in all the Chinese food. The Assistant Manager of the Chinese Restaurant at Colombo Hilton says that though they use it in most preparations, should a guest request food without MSG, they are most willing to cooperate.

At one of Colombo's popular Chinese Restaurants, it is used in soup, noodles, rice, meat, fish and vegetables for that special flavour. "All Chinese, Hong Kong and Thai people use it and we find nothing wrong. Only the westerners consider it harmful," says the Supervisor. Some people though, are allergic to it like they are allergic to tablets such as Amox or Panedol, he adds, and if they let us know, we will not use MSG in their food.

At Peach Valley, as a policy, they do not use MSG at all, unless customers request it. Many of the tiny outlets that serve fast food however, use the substance liberally. It is up to us to make an informed choice. If you are sensitive to MSG, you are likely to be sensitive to other food additives. Diagnosis should be made through an elimination diet and challenge test. Therefore if MSG is causing problems for you, you have to remove it from your diet.

HFC:Those days of trials and triumphs
As the year-long centenary celebrations of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya draw to a close with a concelebrated mass at 5.30 p.m. tomorrow in the school grounds, many are the memories cherished by the thousands of students who have passed through its portals.

Pranks and punishments. Trials and triumphs. Joy and happiness. The days when HFC was in its infancy, just learning to 'walk and talk' and not the colossus by the sea it is today. A meeting with an "old girl" now in her eighties brings back a kaleidoscope of memories of what those days were like.

"I was just seven years old when I joined the boarding in 1922 because my parents were going abroad. I remember how we played hide-and-seek all over the garden. There were only a few buildings and mostly coconut groves," says Celia Mary Dorothy Gunesekera, nee Alles, nostalgically turning back the pages of time.

Now 88, her mind is still crystal clear about her days at HFC. The first spell was just for about six months, before it was time to move on to Sacred Heart Convent, Galle as her father went on transfer there. But the links with HFC were not severed and she was back in the school in 1930 to sit her Junior Cambridge examination.

"Those were the days of Mother Anunciation, when many new things were introduced to the school," she says with pride. As Principal, Mother Anunciation guided the destinies of Holy Family Convent for more than 30 years. "Under her dynamic personality, HFC developed in leaps in bounds."

”The house systems were introduced when I was in school and Mother Anunication's nominee became the first Head Girl.I was the first Boarders' Captain," says Mrs. Gunesekera with some pride.

It was also the time when the old girls were mobilized to form the Past Pupils' Association. "I distinctly remember being told by the Boarding Mistress who was also a nun that the boarders should not create any trouble that day. 'You should be seen and not heard,' we were warned, as we were an incorrigible lot. The PPA's first meeting was held in the garden under the palms, swaying softly in the breeze blowing from the Indian Ocean."

A mischievous smile touches her lips as she relives the time when the school had more boarders than day-scholars. "I am ashamed to admit that we insisted that the day-scholars bring us something everyday. Of course it was something edible," she chuckles.

The pranks were also there in plenty, but the nuns excused her on the grounds that she was a tomboy, because she was the only girl among five boys in her family. Adds Mrs. Gunesekera, "We had Mr. Mortier to teach us geometry and I was terrible in class. As soon as he began the lesson I would keep repeating that Hippo has no meaning, just to cause havoc in class. I was immediately reported to the principal and had to write that sentence 100 times as punishment," she says, wondering why she was not expelled for such misdemeanours.

As boarders too they had their fun. Hiding the food that their parents sent them, they would have midnight feasts and throw the "polished" chicken bones out of the window onto Retreat Road. "To our consternation, one day, a man came to the parlour after collecting all the bones in a bag to show the nuns. All the girls had partaken of the meal, but everyone looked at me and I was the one who got caught," she says.

Food was something that tempted them very much as boarders. "Whenever we passed the tray of covered fruit, including luscious grapes, being kept for the priest, myself and another girl would flick open the cover and pop a few into our mouth. Now when I think of those days, I am so ashamed of myself. “

There were also certain things which were a "must learn" for young ladies -- playing the piano being one of them, whether they liked it or not. "I would turn the clock forward so that my practice time became shorter."

Even after she left school, the bonds with HFC did not break. The tug was too great. She was very much a part of the PPA and also solidly behind the school authorities when Catholic schools were taken over by the government. "We barricaded ourselves in and with the help of many old girls and their husbands showed our immense displeasure over this move."

Proud that her daughters and now her grand-daughter is a student of HFC, making it three generations in all, she adds with a tinge of sadness that "those days will never come".

Won't they, I wonder as I watch the little girls in their bright white uniforms trudge to school. The values that Holy Family has inculcated in those who have passed through its portals in its 100-year existence will never die.

The other day, sitting in the school office I listened to the words of wisdom spoken at the morning assembly. The message was about the need to strive hard to achieve the impossible dream while retaining one's values. These values of simplicity, faith in God and kindness towards others, which Mrs. Gunesekera still cherishes are the values which have fortified Familians long after they have walked out of the school gates forever.

These are the same values that I see my nearly-10 daughter imbibing with each passing day in this convent school.

That is the strength of Holy Family. That is what has made it the colossus it is today.
-- Kumudini Hettiarachchi

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