Last week, Viet Nam News asked its readers their opinions on the negative effects of MSG (mi chinh) and how they feel about MSG being added to 90 per cent of the dishes throughout Viet Nam. Here are some responses:
Jerome Valette, French, HCM City
I once had a close friend in Viet Nam who developed terrible headaches after eating pho. This Vietnamese friend did not realise the problem came from the addition of MSG to pho.
One thing for sure is that chefs in France do not use MSG. It can still be found in packaged foods but the amounts are clearly stated on the labels. People in France are deeply aware of the negative effects of MSG and try to avoid it as much as possible. Unlike Asian dishes, most French dishes do not require the use of MSG. However, we noticed that it was commonly used in Chinese restaurants in France.
Due to celebrations for Tet (Lunar New Year) Festival, the Viet Nam News will not run the Your Say column next week.
In Viet Nam, the picture is totally different. The Vietnamese are much more receptive toward the use of MSG than Westerners. First of all, we can't trust the accuracy of packaged food labels so the only way to go in Viet Nam is to protect ourselves. Just say "xin khong bot ngot", but watch carefully while they make your food.
However, I think a growing number of Vietnamese have been starting to notice that consumption of MSG could lead to headaches, backaches and high-blood pressure, among other problems. The Government should require MSG producers in Viet Nam to print information about the negative effects of MSG on their products – similar to requiring cigarette producers to print the line that smoking could lead to lung cancer.
JD Kellas, Australian, Ha Noi
I am one of those 15 per cent of Australians who suffer an allergic reaction to MSG in food; perhaps our European ancestry has made us susceptible to reactions to MSG. My first experience was in a Chinese restaurant about 30 years ago and the reaction was swift and immediate; violent vomiting and a serious skin reaction like hives.
As Australian restaurants came under pressure to not use MSG, I have only had similar reactions once or twice since. My reactions aren't of the type suggested in last Friday's editorial, no heart flutters, no high temperatures, no hospitalisation, just vomiting and serious skin rashes that may cover my whole body. Yes, my reactions may not be life threatening, but they are real and annoying.
Since coming to Viet Nam five months ago, I have had two instances of reactions to MSG, and usually after several consecutive meals of pho or bun; fortunately the reaction has only been in the form of skin reactions, not the vomiting. These attacks are alleviated by taking prescribed antihistamines and steroid medications for about a week and avoiding these foods for a time.
Clearly avoidance is the best policy, but I love pho and bun, one of the unstated reasons for coming to Viet Nam, so I have learnt to say "khong mi chinh" (especially when ordering pho or bun) as I have observed that perhaps 20 to 40 gramares of MSG can be added to a bowl before it is served. I have also seen customers add further amounts to their meals.
Avoidance of MSG is not confined to some Westerners. I have encountered many Vietnamese who also ask for "khong mi chinh" and who have told me that they no longer use MSG at home.
While MSG is added to Vietnamese food as a "flavour enhancer", I am not convinced that it does actually enhance the food. It is my experience that food without MSG actually allows you to taste the ingredients, and surely it must be more healthy for the individual. After all, MSG is a salt which may have longer term effects on health as evidenced in Western societies where too much salt leads to hypertension and other heart related complaints.
My love of pho and bun is unabated despite the short term inconveniences, so I will continue to ask for "khong mi chinh", watch the preparation of the meal and hope that it is relatively free of mi chinh and enjoy Viet Nam, its food, society and landscapes.
Le Duy Luong, Vietnamese, Ha Noi
I think most foreigners already know about the side effects they could experience from eating Vietnamese food before they come to Viet Nam, especially those that are sold on the streets. As Vietnamese, we grow up with the tendency to accept that our grandmothers and mothers use MSG frequently. That's why many Vietnamese aren't allergic to MSG. I think it's quite hard to convince a typical Vietnamese that excessive use of MSG could cause things such as depression.
However, I understand that the most important ingredient in pho, or any other dishes, is not MSG. It's only an enhancer and you can certainly use other kinds of spices to enhance the taste.
It has become a habit for many Vietnamese cooks so you can't expect to see any regulations on the amount that can be used in certain restaurants or in packaged foods any time soon. The best way to avoid it is to be cautious and say "No" when you eat out.
Remember after Vedan, a Taiwanese maker of MSG, was caught up in a full blown scandal for dumping untreated wastewater into Dong Nai River many years ago, many people started boycotting Vedan's products. So if we can better educate the public in Viet Nam about how unhealthy MSG can be, they could very well stop buying MSG permanently.
Ngo Viet Anh, Vietnamese, Da Nang
As to why there are often no reports of Vietnamese people or foreigners being hospitalised due to the use of MSG, it's because most Vietnamese do not consider excessive use of MSG to be fatal, which means their hospitalisations aren't considered newsworthy.
Despite the popularity of Vietnamese cuisine worldwide, it's clearly very hard to avoid MSG in general and other risks one is exposed to when eating out here: borax and formaldehyde in pho noodles, raw vegetables that were grown using pesticides, and E coli in pork pies and sausages. So you really have to learn how to avoid those risks before waiting for the authorities to do anything about MSG or food safety in general.
I still see that some Vietnamese newspapers continue to suggest "normal level" use of MSG. The Health Ministry has included MSG on the list of permitted food additives since 1991. There's not much we can do rather than learning how to stay away from it both in and out of our home. — VNS