Thursday, January 26, 2012

Getting away from MSG

MSG (monosodium glutamate) is bad for you. You can read about it here -- I'm not going to get into that discussion in this post.

The problem is: MSG is everywhere. You aren't going to find it written as "MSG" or "monosodium glutamate" on all your labels, either. They have all kinds of tricky names for it.

A friend of mine told me, "Don't eat anything that comes in a box or a can."

Seriously, it's in everything. It is particularly dangerous for the very young, and it is in things that people give their children all the time, like those little orange fishy crackers, and even baby formula.

MSG makes things taste good. It is why you can't stop with just one Pringle's potato chip. It is the reason McDonald's can use the lowest possible grades of beef and chicken, and still sell things that taste great. It's in canned soup and envelopes of soup mix, onion dip and salad dressing.

It's in everything. The last time I was in a restaurant, I ordered a hamburger and french fries because I knew that if I got the "Asian wrap" there'd be a ton of MSG in that. My hamburger tasted pretty natural, but the fries had an orange seasoning on them that tasted delicious. I'm pretty sure it was partly MSG.

I figure that the frozen turkeys they sell around Thanksgiving time contain MSG, too. They always say, "injected with a solution." That solution almost certainly has MSG in its formula.

If it's in everything, how do you avoid it?

Here are three things you can do to reduce your intake of MSG:

(1) Make your own bouillon substitute for soups and casseroles.

In other words, don't buy canned soup and don't start with mixes when you make a casserole. No more Hamburger Helper. No more taco seasoning mix. No more bouillon cubes or chicken base (sorry).

Now, since MSG is the thing that makes it all taste so good, how do you make it taste good without MSG?

I have found that a splash of molasses works wonders. The amazing thing is that molasses is actually really good for you! And trust me, if you just use a tiny splash, it doesn't all come out tasting like barbecue. The molasses just adds a slightly deepened, rich flavor different from but similar to the flavor that comes from MSG.

For an average recipe, in place of a cube of bouillon or 1 teaspoon of chicken base, I add:

1 "splash" of blackstrap molasses (about a teaspoon)
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp. granulated garlic
1/2 - 1 tsp. sea salt (depending on how much additional salt the recipe calls for)

A splash of molasses in beef dishes also gives the gravy a nice brown color. Molasses is good stuff!

(2) Make your own white sauce instead of using cream soups
like cream of mushroom or cream of chicken.

Learn how to make a simple white sauce. This is one of the most basic cooking skills. Now, this does not apply to people who are are gluten-intolerant. We are a low-gluten family. Now and then, I have a piece of whole grain toast, and I do thicken my white sauces with white flour. So we are not a no-gluten family. We have not needed to be. Therefore, this is how I make a white sauce:

Basic white sauce recipe:

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
(dried onion, granulated garlic, dry mustard, black pepper, various chopped vegetables)
2 cups milk (we generally stock whole milk)

In a medium, heavy saucepan, melt the butter. If you are adding vegetables (onion, peppers, celery, etc.) saute them in the butter and add whatever seasonings you are using (onion, garlic, dry mustard, black pepper, etc.) and stir around.

Sprinkle in the flour and stir it in well with everything else.

With a spatula or a whisk, stir in a little bit (about 1/3 cup) of the milk. Stir well until the mixture is smooth. Then add another 1/3 cup milk and stir and-so-on-and-so-on until you have added all the milk.

Stir constantly over medium low heat until it comes to a boil. Boil about 30 seconds or so.

At this point, I often add cheese, but whether you would want to do that depends on what you are making.

This is what you use in place of "cream of mushroom soup" in those old family recipes. If you want a little extra kick, add the bouillon substitute that I explained above.

(3) Make your own salad dressing

You need a blender or a food processor to make dressing, and you need to experiment and get it the way it suits you. Here is a basic recipe that I shared earlier:

Salad Dressing --

2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
1/8 tsp. sea salt
a small slice of fresh onion.

Blend in blender until smooth and drizzle over your salad. You can double or triple this recipe, but it doesn't keep well for more than a couple of days, due to the raw onion.

  • You may find that you prefer a different oil, like sunflower or grapeseed.
  • You may find that you like apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar rather than balsamic.
  • You may want a bit less or a bit more salt.
  • I have found that adding whole wedges of lemon (unpeeled, but I do try to get the seeds out), and pureeing them into the dressing, provides a nice zesty flavor and thickens the dressing in a rather delightful way.
  • This dressing is sugar free. You could add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar--or better yet, molasses--if it doesn't taste quite right to you. Sugar is really bad for you, but we are talking about quite a minuscule quantity. While sugar is bad for you, it is not an outright toxin like MSG, and if a tiny bit helps you get off MSG, it's a good trade.
If you cut out commercially prepared seasoning mixes, canned soups and prepared salad dressings, you will be well on your way to reducing MSG in your diet. Of course, you must also stay away from all the chips and snacks that come loaded up with it, from cheesy crackers to nacho cheese flavored corn chips. There are nice organic chip options in the organic section of most grocery stores, if you need those kinds of snacks (I'd still read the label though). Raw vegetables dipped in homemade hummus is a better snack than chips.

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