One hundred years ago this year, monosodium glutamate (MSG) was identified as a fifth taste quality. Not sweet, sour, bitter or salty, but one the Japanese discoverer, Kikunae Ikada, called umami, or “deliciousness” and “savoriness.” Turns out we have a specific glutamate receptor for this taste, identified in 1996.

Ikada found glutamic acid in seaweed and by 1909 was in production of MSG under the name Ajinomoto, from the Japanese phrase “aji no moto” or “essence of taste.” He soon found a better route in the fermentation of molasses and wheat or some other starch. In 1947, this now commonly used food came to the U.S. as Ac’cent.

Now MSG is sold here as yeast extract, sodium cassinate, hydrolized vegetable protein and also Ac’cent and Ajinomoto Maggi, Marmite, Sazon Goya and Vegemite. It is a stretch for me to consider Vegemite as a flavor enhancer, I must say, but apparently some do.

MSG occurs naturally in high concentrations in many foods: Parmesan cheese, dried mushrooms and tomatoes, among others. It’s used in various snack foods, chips and seasonings. It may, may be used in the preparation of certain Asian culinary offerings.

So, let’s get to that aspect of MSG. The belief in a “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” through which some patrons experience headache, shortness of breath and chest pain after dining in certain establishments. MSG is blamed despite well-run studies by both our Food and Drug Administration and also the World Health organization that MSG presents no known health risk.

Try telling that to people convinced MSG is bad for them. Of course, sensitivity or allergic reactions are real and variable; it’s probably a pretty good bet there’s some food you avoid or some time of the year when you notice some reaction to one pollen or another. I don’t tolerate coconut and only recently found another person with that odd allergy.

One hundred years on, MSG is widely used and appreciated by most consumers.

Researchers are investigating certain probiotic organisms to reduce the body’s immune response to allergens, in particular to pollens.

Probiotics are dietary supplements containing potentially beneficial bacteria or yeasts. Some are widely used – lactic acid bacteria, for example, in dairy products – in prepared items. Think labels. Think yogurts. Anyway, this new work is concerned with probiotics that may reduce the production of molecules associated with allergy, specifically the antibody IgE. IgE is produced in the body in response to foreign pathogens such as grass or pollen. This antibody stimulates the histamine response, which shows up with runny noses and a general feeling of illness.

The scientists working on this research caution their work has only begun, but wouldn’t it be nice.

The media focus on New Orleans and Key West in this hurricane season. If you were a big-time anchor or talking head, where would you like to be in a big storm? A four-star hotel or some small-town motel? Sure, the real story may be out on the outskirts, but what better backdrop than the French Quarter? All those animals, birds and plants affected simply don’t have sufficient spokesmen. Much more sport to do the paparazzi bit with a new political face, even if the real story is missed thereby.

Field Notes: On Thursday, waves of small land birds in migration came in or passed through. Among them: Brewer’s blackbirds, goldfinches, Western tanagers. Some lucky feeder-people still have hummingbirds (Pamela Periconi, Mary Louhuis, many others.) Jim Stevens watched as up to 50 robins gathered in a premovement assembly Saturday in Star Valley. None seen the next day.

Tony White had five Western kingbirds at Kelly Warm Springs on Saturday and six turkey vultures in the hayfields, Grand Teton National Park. Tony had two willow flycatchers in the South Park Feedground on Friday. Tom Hahn had a pygmy nuthatch, an accidental species in Jackson Hole. Fred Kingwill found three white-tail deer around Red Tail Pond in Grand Teton National Park a week ago.

The Jackson Hole Bird Club will meet on Sunday, Sept. 14., at 7:30 p.m. in Jackson Town Hall. Observations, socializing, sharing and a talk by Tony White. Tony authored A Birder’s Guide to the Bahama Islands (Including Turks and Caicos), a comprehensive guide of those islands. He will talk on the fauna of the Bahamas with slides. Everyone is welcome to attend; it’s free.

Note: As this is written, the Bahamas are being hit by fringes, at least, of Hurricane Ike. It’s a big one and headed into the Gulf of Mexico, it is predicted.

© Bert Raynes 2008


Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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