Author Archives for The Food Sommelier

MSG is not as scary as you think…


What most people don’t realize is that MSG is naturally found in foods including mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, sugar beets, soy beans, fish, and seaweed. Culinary techniques such as drying foods and aging cheese increases the concentration of naturally occurring MSG (i.e., dried mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, seaweed, Parmesan cheese). MSG provides the savory, or umami, taste in these foods. Umami is considered to be the 5th basic taste: sweet, salty, sour and bitter being the other four. 

People have been seeking out and eating MSG rich foods for thousands of years. The consumption and manufacture of high-salt and high-glutamate foods, which contain both sodium and glutamate, stretch back even longer, with evidence of cheese manufacture as early as 5,500 BC. In 1908, a Japanese chemistry professor by the name of  Kiunae Ikeda isolated MSG from seaweed and since then it has been used to season food, with numerous studies confirming its safety.

Isolated MSG is a white odorless power that can be purchased in retail markets under names such as Accent (B&G Foods Inc.), Ajinomoto, Tasting Powder, Vetsin, Sazón (Goya Foods) and Mei Yen. MSG is also commercially sold as a flavor enhancer. Here is a laundry list of processed foods containing added MSG:

Asian foods, salty/savory snacks, mixed nuts, salted/flavored peanuts, hydrolyzed proteins, gelatins, plant protein extracts, yeast extract, textured protein, malt extract, malt flavoring, barley malt, bouillon, stock, carrageenan, maltodextrin, whey protein, natural flavors, processed meats, condiments, pickles, soups, and baked good

Just about anything processed, protein fortified, enzyme modified or fermented may contain MSG!

Is MSG safe?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe,” but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to a food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label. Although anecdotal, MSG is said to be the cause of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Symptoms include dehydration, thirst, headaches, depression, and irritability.

At Food Sensitivity Solutions, we believe that some people are susceptible to “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” because they have a food sensitivity to MSG. Since MSG is often demonized, we’d like to clarify that MSG is not necessarily a harmful substance, but we do acknowledge that some people are sensitive to it. It’s important to keep in mind that many benign foods and food chemicals cause reactions in certain individuals but that does not mean that they should be avoided by everyone. When you think about MSG, realize that most Asian populations ingest it in large quantities with no ill effect. Food critic Jeffrey Steingarten argues that fear of MSG is a Western bias born out of lack of culinary knowledge and anti-Asian sentiment: “If MSG is a problem, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”

If you are sensitive to MSG, you may have less reaction when it’s found naturally in foods as natural sources of MSG typically contain less than processed sources. However, highly sensitive people may still react to naturally occurring sources. And just like many food chemicals, manufactures sometimes “hide” it on the label by using synonyms or closely related substances. Here is a list of alternate chemical names you might see for MSG:

Monosodium glutamate, sodium glutamate, Sodium 2-aminopentanedioate, Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate, L-Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate, L-Monosodium glutamate monohydrate, Monosodium L-glutamate monohydrate, MSG monohydrate, Sodium glutamate monohydrate

If you think you may be sensitive to MSG, try avoiding it for at least 2 weeks and observe if your symptoms improve. You can also get tested to see if you are sensitive. Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in food sensitivities can steer you in the right direction of an MSG-free diet.  But for most of us, MSG is really not as scary as we’ve been led to believe.



Cruising with a Dietitian – How to avoid gaining weight while at sea….

My husband and I just returned from a 7 night cruise from Baltimore to the Bahamas on the Carnival Pride. Since we’ve been back, I’ve had several people ask me the million dollar question: “How much weight did you gain?” Since this blog entry is about my experience I’ll tell you: about 3 pounds. So, let me rephrase my blog title:
Cruising with a Dietitian – – how to gain “just a little bit” of weight while at sea.

Not being allowed to gain any weight would be unrealistic and just not any fun! I must admit that I am a little bit of a foodie and we did indulge in many of the culinary adventures the ship and ports had to offer: The “Chef’s Table” tour of the galley and 7 courses tasting menu, a night at “David’s” steakhouse, several servings of molten chocolate cake and deep fried cracked Conch in the Bahamas. I even indulged in a couple of Pina Coladas while lounging in the hot tub.

My measly three pounds is really not that much considering the statistics. The personal trainer from the ship’s gym quoted me a figure of 7-14 pounds per cruise. A UK poll published last year by the Daily Mail quotes 1 pound a day. found the average weight gain on a 7-day cruise ranges to be between 5 to 10 pounds. Judging by some of the eating behaviors I witnessed on the ship, I would say that this could be accurate for those who really “let loose”.

Here are my top 10 tips for minimizing weight gain while cruising:

1. Be a “Picky” Eater.

No, I am not implying that you need to order chicken fingers at every meal like my son does. What I mean by “picky” is regarding the quality of the food. “Picky” means really two things: 1) not indulging in chicken fingers, mac and cheese, soft ice cream and other items that you can easily get while not vacationing. Save your calories for more epicurean adventures. On my cruise, there were quite a few unique options such as oysters Rockefeller, escargot and chilled mango soup. 2) “Picky” also mean not eating something unless it’s REALLY good. If the fish is dry and cold, don’t finish it. If your buffet food tastes bland, let the waiter take it away. If the cake is tasteless, just take 1 bite and stop. Remember: the “clean plate club” is not in session on cruise ships. Only clean your plate if you truly enjoy the food and if it’s a “4-star” dish.

2. Utilize the Gym.

Not having enough time can’t be used as an excuse while at sea! You should be exercising more, not less. Most ships have cardio equipment, free weights and exercise classes. Sign up for a fitness class. My husband and I signed up for a spinning class at 4pm one day which saved us a few hundred calories of afternoon cocktails – – we didn’t indulge in a drink until the class was over. If you don’t like the gym, there is also usually an outdoor track for walking/jogging. Walk the halls and explore every nook and cranny of the ship. Take the stairs as much as possible instead of the elevators. Think of the cruise as a “spa vacation”: take care of your body, exercise, use the steam room, indulge in a massage, etc. All of these activities are food free.

3. Opt for the dining room over the buffet

Yes, you can order anything you want, but you have to wait for the different courses. Slowing down the meal time also can slow down the amount you eat. It can take 10-20 minutes for your stomach to send a message to your brain that it’s full so having down time between each course is helpful. As an added bonus, the portions served in the dining room on many cruise ships are small – – just don’t order 2 entrees! For most meals, I ordered a salad, a soup, an entrée and split a dessert with my husband.

4. “Scout the Buffet Line”

If you must go the buffet, scout out your options. Choose 3-5 items in total that you most want to eat. Remember that there will be another buffet and more things to try for the next meal. Food researcher, Brian Wansink writes in the April 2013 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine: “Skinny people are more likely to scout out the food. They’re more likely to look at the different alternatives before they pounce on something -heavy people just tend to pick up a plate and look at each item and say, ‘Do I want it? Yes or no.’

5. Eat Dessert Only Once a Day

On cruise ships, desserts are offered 24/7: before breakfast (in the form of sweet rolls), on the menu after brunch, on the lunch buffet, after dinner, 24 hour soft service ice cream buffet, midnight chocolate buffet, etc. You can “have your cake and eat it too” but just once a day. Personally, I didn’t care much for the dry cakes, jello and soft serve ice cream from the buffet line. I saved up my dessert calories for evening desserts in the dining room which were more decadent and often served warm (molten chocolate cake, bread puddings, crème brule, etc.). If you have a sweet tooth like me and can’t decide on 1 dessert, split 2 (or 3) with your partner but only take a few bites of each!

6. Substitute and appetizer for your main meal.

On many nights, I found the appetizers to be much more interesting than the meal options. They usually had 2 interesting soups, salads and small bites to select from. If you want to order the calorically dense French onion soup, go for it and couple it with a salad and small appetizer. 2-3 appetizer portions are most likely fewer calories than an entrée. Here is a picture of a lovely Greek salad I enjoyed.

7. Limit alcoholic beverages (and stay away from all you can drink packages).

Alcohol is the number one source of empty calories for cruisers (a typical Pina Colada tops 600 calories!) Try to hold off on alcohol consumption until after 5pm. This will limit calories and will also allow you to be more active earlier in the day – who wants to take the stairs or jog around the track after a couple of beers?!? Trust me; a tall cold beer tastes much better after a hard workout at the gym. Speaking of my good friend the Pina Colada and other yummy frosted fruity drinks – – try to limit these to 1-2 the entire cruise and stick to dry wine, beer or spirits mixed with water/club soda as they are a fraction of the calories. Our ship had an all you can drink alcohol plan that cost $49.95 per day. Assuming the average drink cost of $7, you would need to have 7 drinks to break even! Drinking less sure did save us money and calories!!!

8. Pass on the bread basket

Each meal in the dining room was accompanied by a bread basket and cute little silver bowl of sculpted butter. For breakfast, various Danishes were served before the meal. None of the breads or rolls were anything special. Skip them! Enough said.

9. Eat only at meal times.

Make a pack with yourself to eat only at meal times. Our ship had a fairly large window for the lunch and dinner buffets as well as a 24 hour pizza and soft serve ice cream station. Some boats even have late night chocolate buffets. Stay away from the buffet room and hang out someplace else between meal times.

10. Drink plenty of water.

Make a point to drink 2 glasses of water with every meal and 1 glass of water for each alcoholic beverage consumed. This will fill you up, keep you hydrated and help combat the ill effects of too much alcohol. Forcing yourself to drink a glass of water with each alcoholic beverage will slow you down from running up your calorie total. On most cruises, soft drinks are extra. My advice is to not purchase this package and instead fill up on water and herbal teas. You can get soda everywhere, why would you want to drink your calories – – save them up for the good stuff on the cruise. The same rule applies to juices (which are also free) – skip them and opt for fruit instead!

When you come home, do not to weigh yourself for at least 3-4 days. Cruise line food tends to be salty so give your body a chance to rid itself of excess water. I usually find that the post cruise week is a great time to “get back on the bandwagon” with a healthy eating routine. You may find your body craving lighter meals as it tries to adjust and cleanse from the previous week. Think of your cruise indulgences as way to provide momentum for a healthy lifestyle rather than a set back!

There is an old quote in the cruise industry that says:

“customers are brought onto the ship as passengers and unloaded a week later as cargo”.

Hopefully by following the above advice you can be unloaded as small “carry-on bag” rather than cargo!

Ode to Asparagus

Ode to Asparagus

As I grow older, I seem to like vegetables more and more.  But a favorite of mine has always been asparagus.  I consider it to be the most elegant of vegetables, visually, its long green spears provides a linear counterpoint to any plated entree.  Per capita, Americans eat 1.24 pounds of Asparagus a year, making it our 21st most popular vegetable.  In restaurants, it’s being touted as the new ‘green bean’.  It’s low in calories and a great source of dietary fiber, calcium and potassium.  And it’s been around since ancient times…a recipe for cooking asparagus is in the oldest surviving cookbook dating back from the 3rd century.  And not to make anyone blush, but the points d’amour (or “love tips”) were served as a delicacy to Madame de Pompadour.

But today I’d like to share with the DARK and SINISTER side of asparagus, something that is perhaps a little uncomfortable to discuss in mixed company.  I’d like to bring up the delicate topic of ASPARAGUS PEE!  You see, even though I LOVE to eat asparagus, the foul odor when I relieve myself after dinner is almost too much to bear. I suffer from a BAD CASE of asparagus pee!  Does anyone else in this room suffer with me?

Well, we are not alone.  In a letter from 1781, the ever so wise Benjamin Franklin stated that “”A few stems of asparagus eaten, shall give our urine a disagreeable odour…”

And French novelist Marcel Proust, so eloquently stated in 1922 that asparagus “…transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.”

And for those of you who do not admit to suffering from this affliction, let me tell you that you do, but are just blind to the condition. You see, asparagus pee is an affliction that affects all of mankind.  It really defines our humanity. Everyone’s pee smells like asparagus after they eat it. Deny this all you like, but those green stalks contain something called asparagusic acid, that when metabolized gives urine that unique odor.  As your body digests food, it breaks down different compounds through enzymatic process. In the case of asparagus, these compounds are volatile and released as a vapor through the urine. That’s the aroma you smell when the sulfur containing metabolites of aspargusic acid exits your body.  The onset of the asparagus pee is remarkably rapid. The smell has been reported to be detectable in as little as 15 to 30 minutes after ingestion

There is even hard core science dedicated to getting to the root of this affliction.  A 1989 clinical study called “Asparagus and malodorous urine” published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that from 307 subjects, all of those who could smell ‘asparagus pee’ could detect it in the pee of anyone who had eaten asparagus, even if the person who produced it could not detect it.   I surely would NOT want to be a subject in that study.

If you insist you’ve never before smelled “asparagus pee,” it’s because you lack the ability to detect the odor. The smell is there, YOU just can’t smell it.  In fact only about 50% of humanity can detect the smell.  The digestive process is pretty constant from person to person, but a person’s ability to detect these odors varies,” This is because our perception of smell has quite a bit of genetic variability and for some, the gene that detects the aroma for the by-product of asparagusic acid breakdown is turned off.  By the way, not being able to detect certain aromas is referred to as “specific anosmia”.

Hmm…this could be quite embarrassing.  You see, I just had asparagus for dinner just before I got here and I’ll probably need to use the restroom after this meeting and now I have to worry about other people being able to smell MY asparagus pee!  I conclude with the hope that I haven’t turned you off to one of my favorite vegetables.

Note: I recently presented this as a fun speech at my local Toastmasters club.  A bit of an uncomfortable topic but the audience sure did learn a lot!  Recently, I’ve been extremely fortunate enough to give paid speeches about nutrition and food appreciation at conferences around the country. Toastmasters has been an INVALUABLE asset allowing me to grow and develop as a speaker. Toastmaster Clubs are available in many locations globally and there probably is one in your neighborhood!  I highly recommending checking them out….

How much POWER does food have over you? Take this quick quiz…

For many years, I thought my strong attraction to food was a personal flaw: I can’t resist the birthday cake therefore I am a weak person. However, new research indicates that there are built in physiological mechanisms that drive us to eat, even when we are not hungry. When in the presence of decadent food such as chocolate cake, the pleasure seeking centers of some people’s brains are more stimulated than others. Unfortunately, these people are also more likely to be obese.

The good news is that you don’t need an MRI scan to determine where you fall on the live to eat, eat to live continuum. The Power of Food Scale was developed to assess the psychological impact of today’s food-abundant environments (1). The higher you score on this survey, the more likely it is that you “Live to Eat”

The Power-of-Food Scale helps gauge how much you “Live to Eat”. Using the following scale, indicate from 1-5 which of the following best describes you:

1 Don’t agree at all
2 Agree a little
3 Agree somewhat
4 Agree
5 Strongly agree

___ 1. I find myself thinking about food even when I’m not physically hungry.

___ 2. I get more pleasure from eating than I do from almost anything else.

___ 3. If I see or smell a food I like, I get a powerful urge to have some.

___ 4. When I’m around a fattening food I love, it’s hard to stop myself from at least tasting it.

___ 5. It’s scary to think of the power that food has over me.

___ 6. When I know a delicious food is available, I can’t help myself from thinking about having some.

___ 7. I love the taste of certain foods so much that I can’t avoid eating them even if they’re bad for me.

___ 8. Just before I taste a favorite food, I feel intense anticipation.

___ 9. When I eat delicious food I focus a lot on how good it tastes.

___ 10. Sometimes, when I’m doing everyday activities, I get an urge to eat “out of the blue” (for no apparent reason).

___ 11. I think I enjoy eating a lot more than most other people.

___ 12. Hearing someone describe a great meal makes me really want to have something to eat.

___ 13. It seems like I have food on my mind a lot.

___ 14. It’s very important to me that the foods I eat are as delicious as possible.

___ 15. Before I eat a favorite food my mouth tends to flood with saliva.

Scoring: Add up your responses and divide the total by 15.

1.0 – 2.3: You’re unlikely to be preoccupied with food or lose control over eating. You “Eat to Live”

2.4 – 3.6: You’re somewhat preoccupied with food but are unlikely to have a problem unless you’re significantly overweight.

3.7 – 5.0: You’re frequently preoccupied with food and at risk of losing control over your eating. This is especially problematic if you are also significantly overweight. You “Live to Eat”

This questionnaire makes a useful tool in a nutrition counseling situation and can provide a degree of accountability for clients who have trouble controlling their weight.

(1) Lowe MR, Butryn ML, Didie ER, Annunziato RA, Thomas JG, Crerand CE, et al. The Power of Food Scale. A new measure of the psychological influence of the food environment. Appetite.2009;53:114–118.

The History and Science of Chocolate

One of the roles I play is content editor for the McCormick Science Institute website. Each week I comb through the scientific literature in search of juicy tidbits on spices, herbs and other flavorings. This week’s search brought up this wonderful FREE paper on the history and science of chocolate. I’m so excited about this paper so I thought I would share it with you.

Did you know that:

  • Cacao is only grown in the “cocoa belt” – a tropical area straddling the equator – between 10 and 20 degrees north to south.
  • The ancient Mayas were the first people to enjoy cocoa around 400 AD. They used it in a drink called “xocalatl” which consisted of dried cocoa beans dissolved in water, cinnamon and red pepper. The drink was bitter and strong and not at all like the hot cocoa we enjoy today. But did you notice how the modern word for chocolate resembles “xocalatl”? Pretty cool!
  • Cocoa was first introduced to the Western world in 1502 by Christopher Columbus in what is modern day Honduras. The Europeans added sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to the traditional beverage – – thus the origins of chocolate as a sweet treat!
  • Modern chocolate was produced for the first time in 1879 by Rudolph Lindt in Switzerland.
  • The health benefits of chocolate may include: Anti-inflammatory, Anti-diabetic and anti-obesity, cardio-protective, improves liver functions, neuroprotective, improves intestinal flora, reduces stress hormones, reduces symptoms of glaucoma and cataract, and retards progression of paradontitis.

Here is the full abstract for the article:
This article gives an account of the origins, evolution and properties of chocolate. Chocolate is processed from the pod or cabosside of the cacao plant, grown in the tropical belt. The origins of chocolate are traced back to the Maya people who were probably the first to cultivate the cacao plant. The early chocolate drink, considered a “drink of the Gods” was mixed with cinnamon and pepper, tasting bitter and strong, and was most appreciated for its invigorating and stimulating effects than for its taste. Imported from the Americas, the softened version soon spread in Europe. From the 1800s to the 20th Century, it evolved from a drink to its current pleasurable varieties (such as fondant, Gianduja, milky and white chocolate), gaining much momentum in industry and also made great impact as a romantic item and art form. Important components in chocolate are flavonoids (antioxidants), cocoa butter, caffeine, theobromine and phenylethylamine, whereas the presence of psychoactive substances account for its pleasurable effects. Caffeine, theophylline and theobromine constitutes the methylxanthines, known to enhance the action of cAMP, which plays an important role in the transmission of intracellular signals. Chocolate is noted to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and cardioprotective effects, and improves the bioavailability of nitric oxide, which action improves the pressure, platelet function and fluidity of blood.

Verna R. The history and science of chocolate. Malays J Pathol. 2013 Dec;35(2):111-21.

Click here to access the FREE full text article.