The recent ban on Maggi noodles must be a depressing reality for those who have grown up gorging on it. But, the truth is, the seemingly-harmless pack of noodles made tastier because of the addition of MSG has been messing with our bodies for a long time.
Agreed, the ‘Maggi ban’ is saddening. It was a gift from heavens for those Indians, who simply couldn’t do without noodles. Want some noodles? Get Maggi. Missing Chinese? Eat Maggi. No Popcorn? Maggi will come to the rescue!
Such was the connect that we’ve all had our own Maggi versions, somewhere subconsciously inspired by the noodle dish we all loved: from classic style to with cheese, sausages, vegetables, egg, sprouts, garlic and chilli, and the famous Siachen Omelet – which is essentially Maggi wrapped in omelet and served with mashed fruits, the one dish that would see you through in winters in Leh and Gulmarg. (Of course, it was a dish innovated by the Army men posted in Siachen, and that’s how it got its name. But, we must discuss it some other day.).
However, let’s face it. Like all things processed, Maggi, since its Indian debut in 1983, was never considered ‘nourishing’. A quick fix of course, but healthy, never. Even in its heydays when Maggi sold on the ‘Do Minute’ carrot for working homemakers, it garnered bad press: “Give me Maggi and I will be thin as a stick,” said one. Another said, “Maggi is fragile, give it only if you want an unhealthy child’. In spite of this, Maggi won the battle as it was doled out as a treat, mostly loaded with vegetables and meat in an attempt to make children eat healthy food. The logic: at least, he is having greens as well.
How Maggi cast a spell
Far cheaper than ordering Chinese food from a good restaurant and getting quickly made (not in the purported two minutes though) turned Maggi into a better chocolate alternative in the years to follow. So much so that parents willingly packed a pack or two of Maggi along with biscuits to help them fight their cravings in the hostels. Schools and colleges allowed Maggi as a food item, and so on.
Interestingly, Maggi floored even those whose introduction to this instant noodle was circumstantial– staying in a PG with only a mini-heater to make tea and Maggi.
The arrival of other instant noodles like Top Ramen in the mid 90s along with WaiWai (which could be had raw) did little to break the brand loyalty. Maggi, towards the fag end of the 90s, had become synonymous with noodle itself.
No one questioned why a nation that had healthy traditional options like dal, chawal, roti and sabzi, and had a culinary landscape that would require several lifetimes to explore and enjoy, had suddenly fallen for a small packet of Maggi – which no health expert, even back then, recommended as nourishing.
Few health quarters did make a noise about the extra sodium in Maggi, which was found to be 10 percent more than required, and the bane of having zero nutrition maida. But, they missed out on the key additive that was hugely responsible for changing palates – Monosodium glutamate or MSG.
MSG: The Background
Incidentally, Maggi wasn’t the first one to use MSG. It was not the first to use it in excess either, as has been proven now. This had been done by Chinese restaurants that added spices, flavouring and sauces to make the food tastier. If that didn’t please you, there were those extra sauces and salt on the table that were tuned to please your tastebuds. Remember the sweet and tangy tomato sauce in a bottle? That was a culprit, too.
In fact, the first recorded usage of MSG can be traced back to the 1860s when Julius Michael Johannes Maggi developed the first draft of Maggi at the behest of the Swiss Government. Maggi had built a reputation for developing nutrition-based flavours, along with physician Fridolin Schuler, with his instant pea and bean soups. He knew how an interesting mix of spices could mollycoddle the receptors in the tongue into believing that they were having the right, nutritious thing. MSG, for instance, is perceived as ‘protein’, much like cooked meat.
Yet, Johannes’ first draft of Maggi was nothing close to what we have today. Millet-flour based, it didn’t really make the grade for tasty, fast-cooking meal. Unfazed, the inventor returned to his research and concentrated on ready-to-use soups and food flavours that were launched in the market in 1886.
Nestle used this formula to create Maggi, but with change specifications. While the noodles were all-purpose flour-based, which made rehydration sustainable, the tastemaker remained more or less the same with a minor modification. The product was slightly tweaked for sodium and amino acids as it changed continents to appeal to the tastebuds.
A similar formula was used by Momofuku Ando to create the popular Instant Ramen in 1957. Ando had started preserving ramen noodles after seeing the food shortage after the Hiroshima bombing, and how people went through great pains for a bowl of soup ramen. He spent a year trying to preserve ramen noodles, but with little success. The texture of the rehydrated noodles was nowhere near the real thing.
The problem remain unsolved until, one day, to make a bowl of ramen for his wife, Ando threw a handful of noodles in tempura oil, and found that frying not only rehydrated the noodles but made pin-size perforations that made cooking them quicker. Plus, it absorbed flavourants well. And that’s how the first instant cup noodle was born like the WaiWai, which could be eaten uncooked since it was fried first. The frying of the noodles in palm oil added fat to it, made it non-sticky, and with tastemaker (which had MSG), was an instant palate pleaser.
What is wrong with MSG?
MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally-occurring non-essential amino acids. It is found in tomatoes, parmesan cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, other vegetables and fruits. It is an essential ingredient for producing insulin, and is required by the body to function well. This may have been the reason why the culinary world has been adding it regularly to enhance taste.
The success ensured that the instant noodle came out with more flavours – much like Maggi, which introduced the masala and chicken variety exclusively for the Indian audience. While, on one hand, this was commercially viable – more options mean more sales – it also meant the extra use of flavourants. Consider, for instance, the Manchurian variety. To get the taste of the Manchurian as close to the real thing, which was the Manchurian served in restaurants and street carts, meant extra additives and flavourants, MSG being one of them. This often masqueraded as spice mix, yeast extract or even hydrolised soy protein.
That, coupled with the fact, that MSG is also created while processing flavorants like Maltodextrin, Bouillon and broth and others added to the worry as it increased the acid from the permissible limit of 0.5 grams per serving.
Studies have proved that 3 grams of MSG can cause harmful effects like headaches and allergies, given the protein nature of this acid. (MSG was initially extracted from seaweed broth that gave it its salty taste, but is now produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beet and molasses).
In fact, research shows that such flavours over-stimulate our nervous system, exciting our nerves and causing an inflammatory response. The repetitive inflammatory responses can cause our nerves to start producing more and more nerve cells that are sensitive to this kind of stimulation, leading to headache, numbness and others symptoms.
However, the immediate effect is on our taste receptors, which over a period, fail to recognize naturally-occurring flavours that do not have additives or taste enhancers, leading us to crave for food with such salts. This, in return, increases our consumption. That may be the cause of worry here.
Why has ‘nothing’ happened to us?
Understandably, an argument can be made that ‘nothing’ has happened to all of us, in spite of years of gorging on Maggi. This makes this whole brouhaha over MSG redundant, right? But, like anything in excess is bad, so is MSG. A more plausible answer to this would be, as Dr. Russell Blaylock wrote in his book called ‘Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills,’ sensitivity to MSG builds up in our bodies until we reach what he calls our “threshold of sensitivity.” In other words, there comes a time when the body can no longer naturally control the effects of stimulation produced by such an enzyme. This shows itself in some form or the other, such as headache, nausea, and sight loss.
What is that threshold? And how soon will one reach it? A response to this question is as speculative today as the return of Maggi.
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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