Sunday, December 8, 2013

MSG Woes & Chicken Stock

It's interesting how foods have power.  Some liken food to medicine thanks to Plato's infamous mantra.  My own Native culture sees strawberries and many other plants as medicine, not merely food.  Food has healing power beyond simple nutrients and broken down scientific components.  We empower ourselves with the choices we make and enjoying these creations within the company of friends and family has its own potential healing component.  The act of cooking can be a ceremony in itself, an exercise of sovereignty or political statement.

Unfortunately, some "foods" also harm.  Over the last several decades, there have been a number of man-made chemical compounds being passed off as "food" and our bodies don't recognize these substances or know what to do with them.  Processed foods fill the shelves of our supermarket to the point where we have to question what food really is now.  Many of us have developed allergies and sensitivities to these substances.  I figured out I have a pronounced sensitivity to MSG (monosodium glutamate), a common food additive.  Whenever I consume significant quantities of this substance, I feel like I have the flu and experience headache, stomach ache, heart palpitations, sweating, anxiety, and extreme thirst.  MSG is the extracted version of free glutamic acid.  Glutamic acid is actually a naturally occurring substance in nature created by the breakdown of food and is common in foods like mushrooms, seaweed, soy, and aged cheeses.  Glutamate even has its own name, umami, or savory taste, the supposed fifth preferred flavor within our palates.  Some enjoy the earthy taste this substance lends to cooking, especially in Asian cuisine.  This is all fine and well, but the problem begins when food manufacturers add MSG to our food without a choice, without disclosure, or in misleading ways by using other names.  It is commonly added to flavored chips and crackers, canned soups, instant noodles, soup mixes, dressings, bouillon cubes, gravies, cold-cuts, and many other products.  Now that people are catching on to the effects, food companies are having to sneak it into their products under other names like "autolyzed yeast," "yeast extract," "whey protein," or even vague terms like "seasonings" or "natural flavors."

When I think about some of my favorite foods from my past - chip dip, Doritos, hot dogs, pizza, crackers - or even foods from my upbringing like Ramen Noodles, Hamburger Helper, Spaghetti-O's, canned soups, macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza, lunch meat, it dazes me how much MSG I have consumed over a lifetime.  You'd think that having my body endure this garbage for so many years, I would have built a tolerance or something!  I'm afraid I was mistaken.  These days, I read labels and menus like a detective and interrogate the wait staff at restaurants, but some things still slip past me.  I was making homemade chicken soup a few months ago and, pressed for time, used Wegmans Organic Chicken Stock as my broth.  Nearly an hour after my meal, I was in full-on MSG mode!  Thinking it was safe because it was "organic" and because the label did not specify "MSG", I later figured out the culprit was "yeast extract."  (Visit these links for more detailed information about MSG and its many labels: What You Need to Know About MSG AllergyMSG Adverse Reactions, Body Systems Affected By MSGProducts Likely to Contain MSG, MSG and Its Disguised Forms.)

Lesson learned.  So what can we do?   Using Michael Pollan's guidelines from In Defense of Food may help you get a good start.  I like his first rule about trying to eat like our great grandmothers, something I hope the recipes in this blog might reflect.  Be "food revolutionaries" and scrutinize, question, and rethink the foods we eat.  Be outraged by the contaminants often being accepted as food and the work we have to do to protect our health.

Or, you could simply make your own chicken stock.  I took some help from Chef Anne Burrell from the Food Network and made her Basic Chicken Stock Recipe.  It was a delicious chicken stock I made from all organic ingredients and it had such a beautiful, pure, golden sheen emanating from it.  I was impressed with the yield, its cost-effectiveness, and the flavor it continued to retain despite freezing it.

(verbatim from Burrell's recipe:

2 pounds chicken thighs and legs, skins removed (Don't throw those chicken skins out!  I left them on to roast at first.  Then when the chicken was done, I peeled them off the chicken thighs and roasted them for an extra 10 minutes on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet with onion powder and sea salt until they were crisp.  Mmm.)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into 1-inch dice
2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
10 sprigs thyme

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Place chicken thighs and legs on a sheet pan. Lightly coat with oil and roast until golden, about 35 to 45 minutes.  

Coat a large, deep stock pot lightly with olive oil. Add the onions, celery, carrots and garlic to the pot and bring it to a medium high heat. Cook the vegetables stirring frequently until they start to get soft and are very aromatic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the oven and add to the pot of vegetables along with the bay leaves and thyme (Don't let those juices on the bottom go to waste either!  I like to add some water and heat the pan on a burner for a few minutes so those healthy fats and scrap pieces loosen up.  Add this to your stock pot too.). Fill the pot with water. Place the pot on a burner on high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Eventually a gray scum will form on the top of the water. Skim the scum and the fat off the top of the water. (Using all organic ingredients, there wasn't much of anything to skim off the top.) Simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Refill the water as it evaporates.

Strain stock and discard the chicken and veggies. (I wanted to salvage the chicken, but it had no flavor left in it.  Maybe it might make good dog food?  The veggies were still edible though.  I hate wasting food!) Store the stock in smallish containers, plastic pint and quart containers from Chinese take out are perfect! Recycle! If not using right away freeze for later use.

My yield ended up being five 1.5 quart containers that went straight to the freezer.
These are just a few of the recipes this stock has come in handy for: Beef Stew;
Black Bean and Butternut Squash Soup; Slowcooker Chicken and Wild Rice Soup.  To thaw, I transfer the frozen broth cube to a glass dish and let it sit on top of the running oven for a while.  You could always use the microwave defrost setting, or just throw it into your stock/crock pot as is and it will break down and melt.


  1. This is a really great post! I started making my own chicken stock over the past year and will never go back! I can't believe all the stuff that's in the store-bought stuff.

  2. Thank you, Amy! Yes, it is so necessary these days to make things yourself to avoid added harmful ingredients.