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In a Pickle

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I have received a jar of commercially prepared chopped garlic. It has a strange taste, more like pickles than garlic. I have been eating a clove of fresh, raw garlic every day for years, so I know how it tastes. Could you please comment on this?

Ye gods! You chomp on raw garlic every day? You must be very lonely.

The garlic in the jar tastes like pickles because it is, in effect, pickled -- immersed in an acidic liquid that probably contains vinegar. The acid is a defense against botulinum poisoning or botulism, so-named in the late 18th century after a number of people died in Germany after eating contaminated sausage. Botulus is the Latin word for sausage.

Today, botulin poisoning is rare. It is caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can contaminate subterranean crops and other foods. The bacteria cannot survive in air, so they are dangerous only in an oxygen-free environment such as being on chopped garlic submersed in water or oil. But acids repress their growth; hence, the vinegar.

C. botulinum bacteria do not cause the disease directly. But as they multiply they generate a neurotoxin, one of the most lethal poisons known. Neither the toxin nor the bacteria and their spores are reliably destroyed by cooking.

Notice that I said "reliably." You will find statements to the effect that the bacteria are killed and the poison destroyed at certain elevated temperatures, but it's risky. Best to prevent the bacteria from multiplying in the first place.

My little bottle of Maggi seasoning had almost run out, and I tried to replace it, but the big grocery stores didn't carry it. I was able to get a large bottle at a Korean-owned market. The name was the same, as were the shape and color of the bottle and label, but I was surprised to find the ingredients were quite different. For example, the old one listed "hydrolyzed corn gluten." The new one contained none of that, but among other things listed "wheat gluten," "disodium inosinate" and "disodium guanylate."

I e-mailed Nestle Co. to ask whether the new one should perhaps be labeled "Son of Maggi," but have not received an answer.

Don't hold your breath. Multinational corporations are not known for their sense of humor.

Maggi, a Swiss company that merged with Nestle in 1947, makes seasoning sauces that are used throughout the world but especially in Asia, where their similarity to soy sauce is attractive to consumers.

When I received your inquiry, I went to the kitchen to check the label on my own bottle of Maggi seasoning. To my consternation, I found yet a third combination of ingredients. I had to call for help.

Linda Jamison, manager of technical services at Nestle USA in Glendale, Calif., cleared it all up -- sort of. It seems that Maggi seasonings are manufactured in three plants: one in Germany for the European market; one in China tailored to Asian preferences (undoubtedly the one you got in the Korean store); and a small factory in Mexico. Each product has a different formulation, based on the cost and availability of ingredients, and all are imported into the United States just to confuse us. My confusion was amplified when Jamison told me that my bottle of sauce came from a Swiss plant that was shut down several years ago. You can check the country of origin on your label to see which kind you have.

Your inquiry gives me an opportunity to explain how the ingredients work:

· Wheat gluten: When wheat flour is mixed with water and kneaded, two of its proteins, glutenin and gliadin, form a gummy, stretchy structure called gluten. Gluten is what traps the air and carbon dioxide bubbles that give bread its wonderful, spongy texture. What's it doing in Maggi? Read on.

· Hydrolyzed corn gluten: Gluten can be obtained not only from wheat, but also as a byproduct of the wet milling of corn. Like other proteins, gluten -- whether from wheat or corn -- can be hydrolyzed -- broken down into its component amino acids, the most common of which is glutamic acid, the flavor-boosting factor in monosodium glutamate, or MSG. That's why you will see "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" as a flavor-enhancing ingredient in many prepared foods.

· Disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate , derived from proteins found naturally in fish, seaweed and yeast cells, are also flavor enhancers, but they work only in synergy with glutamic acid, which is already present in the sauce from the gluten. Any one or several of these flavor-enhancing substances may be present in any given Maggi formula. Note to individuals who are sensitive to MSG or glutamate: Even if the label says "No MSG," there will be some glutamic acid in any food that contains disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate or any kind of hydrolyzed protein. Scan the labels.

Robert L. Wolke (www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook 2, the Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" (W.W. Norton, 2005). He can be reached atwolke@pitt.edu.

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