Monosodium glutamate is a controversial food additive that is often used to give the flavor of a dish a boost. If you’re drawing a blank on what we’re talking about, you may recognize its common name — MSG. Those three letters have caused a lot of headaches over the years, and it may not be for the reason you’re suspecting. The most many people have heard of this additive is that it can make you feel kind of sick or give you headaches. Does MSG deserve this reputation, or have we been judging a simple chemical unfairly?
What is Monosodium Glutamate?
In terms of its makeup, MSG is made from amino acids known as glutamic acid, which can help the body create proteins and glutamate. The monosodium aspect means that it’s a sodium salt with glutamate. For something referred to as a food additive and a chemical, it must be pretty manufactured, right? Kind of. Monosodium glutamate is actually found naturally in many savory foods like tomatoes, corn, seaweed, soy sauce, and cheeses like parmesan, cheese, or strong blue cheeses.
While monosodium glutamate can occur in nature, much of what is used today in cooking is manufactured by fermenting sugar cane. Although, MSG was originally discovered when Dr. Kikunae Ikeda crystalized his wife’s kombu broth. Coincidentally, this is the same story that led to the discovery of the fifth taste, umami.
Not only is it found naturally in the foods listed earlier, MSG is also used in many processed meats, canned goods, seasoning blends, and soups.
Since MSG was discovered at the same time as umami, it makes sense that MSG is used to add umami to a dish. Not only is it found naturally in the foods listed earlier, MSG is also used in many processed meats, canned goods, seasoning blends, and soups. You can even find powdered MSG seasoning online and in many grocery stores in the spice aisle. While a little bit goes a long way with that seasoning, it can be useful to punch up any number of savory or salty dishes.
Is It Actually Bad for You?
Now on to the big question — is MSG bad for you? With over a century of research (MSG was first patented in 1908), we have a relatively good idea on this. For most of the population, monosodium glutamate is a perfectly fine ingredient that’s generally recognized as safe. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) note that, although they’ve received report of “symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG” over the years, they’ve “never been able to confirm that MSG caused the reported effects.” To do their due diligence, the FDA asked an independent group, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), to test the safety of the additive. They found that some sensitive subjects reported short-term and generally mild symptoms, like headaches, numbness, tingling, or drowsiness, but this was after consuming three grams or more of MSG without food. The FDA notes that you’ll likely never ingest this amount (the average serving of food with MSG contains about .5 grams).
To quote food writer Jeffrey Steingarten in his book It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, “If MSG is bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”
These findings are backed up both in science and anecdotally. We must share a point first brought up by food writer Jeffrey Steingarten in his book It Must’ve Been Something I Ate (and echoed by others ever since), “If MSG is bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?” It’s a good question, as MSG is a popular seasoning found in many Asian dishes, not just China. On a more scientific footing, studies also back up the findings, noting “no consistent clinical data to support” the claims of symptoms.
Why Do People Think It’s Bad for You?
If there’s no evidence that MSG is bad for you, then where did it get the harmful reputation? While there is rarely a single point where a misconception is born, the belief that MSG causes side effects can at least be drawn to one major popularizing article. In 1968, Dr. Ho Man Kwok ate at a Chinese restaurant. Later, he began to feel ill, noticing the symptoms we now connect to MSG. He would later write about this experience in an op-ed with the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome (a name that has stuck to this day). He speculated the symptoms were caused by the soy sauce, the cooking wine, and other ingredients before mentioning monosodium glutamate. This op-ed was followed the next year by a study in Science that tied MSG to patches of dead tissue in the brain, obesity, and sterility. Case closed, right?
Further studies linking MSG with negative symptoms in humans were riddled with critical flaws.
This is where we begin to enter into the bad science territory. What often isn’t mentioned by proponents of the MSG=bad theory is that this study was tested by injecting massive amounts of monosodium glutamate directly into the skin of newborn baby mice and that the results couldn’t be replicated in other studies. Another issue was that people saw Dr. Kwok’s op-ed in the New England Journal of Medicine and didn’t realize it wasn’t a study, giving it a greater degree of assumed scientific rigor than it perhaps should have gotten. Further studies linking MSG with negative symptoms in humans were riddled with critical flaws, like participants being aware of whether they were eating MSG or not. Furthermore, newspaper headlines and books with titles like “Chinese food make you crazy? MSG is No. 1 Suspect” and Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills certainly didn’t help the discourse.
A more insidious influence on the MSG panic is the racial overtones that cropped up. While Dr. Kwok (himself a Chinese-American) may not have intended this, his title of Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome directly tied MSG with Chinese cuisine. To this day, people look for MSG-free Chinese restaurants, despite it being well-established to not harm you. An excellent 2009 paper entitled ”‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980” analyzed the fallout around MSG. What it found was that much of the discourse surrounding the additive was framed by “assumptions about the strangely ‘exotic’, ‘bizarre’ and excessive’ practices associated with Chinese cooking.”
● ● ●
Many have been working to counteract the MSG narrative, both in the racial sense and in the dietary sense. Merriam-Webster, which includes Chinese restaurant syndrome in their dictionary, now notes that it is a dated, sometimes offensive term with no clear basis in science. A campaign called Redefine CRS by Ajinomoto Group was created to help reshape the description of monosodium glutamate. Restaurateurs and celebrity chefs like Eddie Huang, David Chang (including an excellent presentation on the subject), Anthony Bourdain, Heston Blumenthal, Andrew Zimmern, Grant Achatz, and food scientist Harold McGee have all come to the defense of the food additive. Maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship with monosodium glutamate. All it’s ever done is help food taste really good!