Our Stance on Food Additives
Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry supports traditional foods and food entrepreneurs in Taiwan. Our mission statement emphasizes this:
Yun Hai 雲海 offers a selection of premium ingredients for Chinese and Taiwanese cooking. We source directly from artisans, farms, and soy sauce breweries in Taiwan. Terrain, technique, history, and humanity come together in the traditional foods we distribute.
The quality, production processes, and origin of the products we sell are of utmost importance to us. However, we do not reject or vilify the addition of glutamate-related ingredients and amino acids.
We carry two products that contain added glutamic ingredients: Traditional Firewood Soy Sauce and Traditional Firewood Soy Paste. These products contain disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, both naturally derived salts that complement the flavor of the inherent glutamic acid in the soy sauces.
Read more about these ingredients in the FAQ, or read on to understand the context around these ingredients and why we are comfortable with their use.
About Glutamic Acid
Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid responsible for the “umami” flavor or “fifth taste” (salty, sweet, sour and bitter being the other four). Glutamates arer found naturally in parmesan, tomatoes, grapes, seaweed, and fermented products like fish sauce. MSG is a form of glutamate that is commercially isolated. It was originally crystallized from seaweed broth and is now “produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. This fermentation process is similar to that used to make yogurt, vinegar and wine” (source). It is physically indistinguishable from naturally occurring forms of glutamate and is categorized by the FDA as “GRAS” or Generally Regarded as Safe, which is the same category assigned to lactobacillus, a yogurt-producing bacteria. Products with naturally occurring glutamates (such as Parmesan) cannot legally be listed as MSG-free.
Outside of MSG, there are other glutamate-related additives that are not required to be declared on food labeling by the FDA, also with a GRAS status. These include other amino acids, such as alanine, and disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, naturally-occurring compounds that combine with both inherent and added glutamate to create a deeper umami flavor perception. Disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate are also produced by natural means, isolated from tapioca starch by fermentation. You may not have heard of them because they are often not declared or are listed as “natural flavor enhancers” or “yeast extract.”
Based on the information above, we are comfortable with the addition of glutamate-related ingredients to the food we distribute. However, we will always explicitly state ingredients present in the products we sell, even if not required to do so by regulatory bodies.
Producing foods with high levels of inherent umami requires a lot of time, resources and labor. Recognition for this work should be given where it’s due—for example, most of our soy sauces are additive-free with high levels of naturally occurring glutamic compounds due to their extended fermentation times, generations-old brewing vats and fermentation techniques, and undiluted nature.
However, not everyone can afford foods produced in this traditional manner, so to create a more accessible product, added glutamic compounds may be necessary to produce a comparable flavor. We are comfortable with this and always list out ingredients used so our customers can make informed purchasing decisions. We will not reject great products because of an old-fashioned and, frankly, racist food myth about the dangers of MSG and related salts.
The MSG Myth and ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’
There is a subtext of racial bias against Chinese foods and food establishments hidden in the reported (and disproven) negative side effects of MSG. This dates back to a letter to the editor of the New England Medical Journal in the late 1960’s, describing a set of symptoms that afflicted people after eating at Chinese restaurants. This syndrome has been thoroughly debunked through placebo tests and scientific research, but the negative cultural effects of the are so pervasive that Merriam-Webster added “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to their dictionary in 1993, specifically calling out Chinese Food, even when MSG is present in many different kinds of Western foods, from Doritos to a Haggis I once had in the highlands of Scotland.
While we don’t currently carry any products that contain MSG, we find the continued vilification of MSG in relation so Chinese and Asian foods irresponsible, inaccurate, and offensive. We actively campaign against this understanding of MSG and Chinese foods.
For more reading on this topic, see below:
Give MSG a Chance—Really
Bon Appetit, August 23, 2017
Eddie Huang on racial insensitivities behind MSG, Chinese food criticisms
NBC News, January 14, 2020
An MSG Convert Visits the High Church of Umami
The New Yorker, April 27, 2018