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Is MSG really that bad for you?

by Georgina 8 minutes read

Last updated: 06 Sep, 2023

MSG, the bogeyman of the western food industry, has garnered itself an extremely bad reputation over the years. From causing headaches, to depression, to even murder, there are few things people haven't tried to blame MSG for. But how well founded are these ideas, are they scientific fact or just superstition?

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What is MSG?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is simply the sodium salt of glutamate - an amino acid organically found in many different foods and food additives. Glutamic acid provides an important foundation for all living beings in the biosynthesis of proteins, playing a key role in our digestion, muscle function and immune system.

There is a stereotype that MSG is a highly processed food, and whilst it is in fact a chemically altered product, its base ingredients (sodium and glutamate) are naturally occurring and commonly found in many other foods we regularly eat. Although the glutamate in MSG is slightly different from the glutamate naturally found, our bodies process and metabolize both in the exact same way.

MSG is generally made by fermenting corn, sugar cane, sugar, beets, tapioca or molasses but has a distinct full-bodied, savoury taste known as ‘umami’, or roughly translated as ‘deliciousness’ in Japanese. Umami is regarded as the fifth basic taste, alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and can be experienced in a variety of foods like parmesan, mushrooms, kombu, and now, MSG.

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The origins of MSG

In less than 100 years, MSG has gone from non-existent to a best-seller to possibly the most stigmatized food in the world, becoming the poster boy for artificialization of the food industry. But how did this all start and where did MSG come from?

In 1907, Kikunae Ikeda, while drinking the seaweed-based soup broth made for him by his wife, noticed a common quality between it, and foods like asparagus and tomatoes. He began investigating this similarity and found that glutamate was the common foundation in the umami taste found in these foods. After various tests he discovered how to synthesize the taste of umami by extracting glutamate from seaweed and mixing it with both water and table salt to stabilize it before switching to the cheaper, simpler process of extracting it from products like fermented molasses or wheat.

Quickly this flavour enhancer became one of Japan’s greatest commercial food successes. By the 1930’s MSG was a staple ingredient in most Asian kitchens, and by the 1950’s, it made its way into commercial food production all across the U.S, used in baby food, snacks and pretty much every other packaged food.

Although the crystallized seasoning is commonly known by its chemical name today in the US and Europe (which has likely done it’s western marketing no favours), in much of the rest of the world it is still called by its original name given by Ikeda - “Aji no Moto”, the essence of taste.

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How MSG got its bad reputation

In 1968, when MSG was everywhere and anywhere, with Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok. He published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine complaining of heart palpitations, dizziness and shooting arm pains after eating Chinese food.

Despite never actually being mentioned in Dr Kwok’s letter, people immediately leaped to the conclusion it must have been MSG that caused this. The narrative quickly spiralled and spread across the US, and MSG’s fall from grace began. As more and more people, as well as the media, latched on to this story, demands for investigations into its effects began.

Americans held a long-standing prejudice towards Asian cuisines, viewing them as exotic and unclean, and they were spurred on by the letter’s title, using the eye-catching term - ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. From then on various scientists jumped onto that bandwagon, testing huge amounts (far more than the standard human consumption) of MSG on tiny creatures like mice to underpin their conclusions that MSG was dangerous, and who have since ‘discontinued their research’.

What foods can find MSG or Glutamate in?

Whilst mostly known as an ingredient in Chinese takeaways and other Asian food products, both glutamate and even MSG can actually be found in many different foods, some of which are our favourites:

  • Parmesan - contains 1200 mg of glutamate per 100mg, more than any other natural food
  • Marmite - with 1750 mg per 100g , contains more glutamate than any other manufactured product
  • Doritos
  • Low-sodium products
  • Campbell’s chicken noodle soup
  • Condiments

Essentially, many of the foods we eat can contain MSG, or at least glutamate. Even healthy foods like tomatoes and asparagus are loaded with glutamate. And whilst the processed foods flavoured with added MSG might not be the healthiest thing for us to eat, are they any worse for us than the processed foods without it?

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Debunking the myths

Whilst some researchers were conducting flawed studies of MSG on causing ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (considered a legitimate ailment between 1968-1980), other scientists were conducting similar research into the product, using regular consumption levels on adult human test subjects rather than mice, and concluded the product was perfectly safe. Even the US food and Drug administration, after testing it three separate times, has concluded it safe, as well as the World Health Organization.

However, ‘safe’ does not necessarily correspond to health. If you’re wondering, ‘is MSG good for you?’, the answer is no. But it is not any worse for us than the salt we add to our dinners every day. In fact it is healthier than table salt, which directly adds sodium to your diet, unlike MSG which enhances the flavour of your food with less additional sodium.

Like anything, consumption in excess is not good for you, but incorporating a limited amount of MSG into your diet will hardly kill you, it just might make your food taste better. There may be people with a heightened sensitivity to MSG (although not proven) who experience side-effects, but, like most foods, at least some people will be intolerant to it. This sensitivity is referred to as MSG symptom complex and affects a very small percentage of people. But the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have confirmed that even for those with increased sensitivity, they tend to experience only short-term, mild symptoms caused by excess consumption.

Just looking at the widespread use of it across the rest of the world, particularly in Asia, with no experienced symptoms, should be enough to debunk the fictions surrounding it. But countless studies have also disproven these MSG myths, with one 2020 review concluding that some of the famous prior MSG studies were “poorly informative as they were based on excessive dosing that does not meet with levels normally consumed in food products”. Rather, it is likely that the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ suddenly affecting so many, was either caused alternative ingredients in Chinese cuisine people may have been intolerant to, or more likely, by widespread hysteria, or a ‘nocebo effect’, whereby you suffer the symptoms you have been told to worry about.

Unfortunately, as time has gone by the stigma has not disappeared, with food companies printing ‘NO MSG’ on their labels as a symbol of pride. But skewed public perception should play no role on our dinner plates. MSG might not suit everyone, and you may prefer to maintain a healthy diet devoid of processed foods, but it is certainly not dangerous. As long as you are not insensitive to it, there’s no reason to avoid consuming MSG any more than you may avoid salt, as long as you’re consuming moderate amounts with your meals. So, give it a try, your taste buds will thank you for it.

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