When you hear MSG, what comes to mind? Processed, chemicals, toxic, headaches, intolerance, Chinese food …? If so, you’re not alone. MSG has been subject to decades worth of misinformation based on unsubstantiated evidence and, quite frankly, xenophobic fearmongering.
What if I told you that MSG is not only used in Asian cuisine, but also found in American favorites like Doritos and KFC’s “finger lickin’ good” chicken? What if I told you that MSG is not only safe, but adds incredibly delicious flavor at a fraction of the sodium of table salt? Let’s break it down …
What is MSG?1-3
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It’s simply the salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid found in foods like cheese, meat, tomatoes, and mushrooms. In fact, we consume about 13 grams of glutamate from foods every day.
Like table salt (sodium chloride), MSG is used as a flavor enhancer and preserver. What makes MSG so unique is that its glutamate offers a distinct and savory fifth taste known as umami. The seasoning is made by fermenting foods like corn, cassava starch, and sugar cane into a neutralized colorless powder.
There’s no difference in the chemical structure between MSG and the glutamate found in natural food sources. We digest and metabolize them the same way! Once MSG reaches a liquid (like your saliva), the sodium and glutamate separate – making its metabolism no different than parmesan cheese (which contains both glutamate and salt).
Is MSG safe?4
Don’t ask me, ask these folks:
- The FDA
- The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)
- The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI)
- The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)
- The European Commission’s Scientific Committee of Food (SCF)
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)
- International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)
The safety of MSG is well researched and well documented. In fact, newer research is no longer exploring it safety, but its potential health benefits from a sodium reduction standpoint. MSG has 1/3 the amount of sodium as table salt. Studies have shown it can reduce the sodium content in foods by 30-50% without compromising taste!5,6 When nearly half of Americans have high blood pressure, sodium-reducing solutions like MSG have considerable public health implications.
Why the bad rap?2,3,7-9
The origin of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” stems back to 1968 in an editorial letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. A physician described symptoms like numbness, palpitations, and generalized weakness after eating at a Chinese restaurant. He hypothesized that the cause was possibly linked to the soy sauce, the wine that the food was cooked in, the high sodium content, or the MSG used. Of these theorized culprits, MSG was targeted by mainstream media and the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” frenzy began.
Initial studies explored the effects of MSG by injecting neonatal mice with extremely (unrealistically) high doses of MSG and (shocker) found concerning effects on their health, further contributing to MSG’s malignment. Extensive follow-up research today shows these initial studies do not model comparatively to human consumption. However, the damage was done. The effects led to decades of misinformation, fueled by misaligned science, confirmation bias, and xenophobic beliefs about Chinese cuisine. For years, many of us grew up with “No MSG” or “MSG-free” messages on food labels or windows of Chinese restaurants. So, it’s completely understandable that an entire generation lives with these deep-rooted beliefs.
But … “in science, truth always wins” – Max Perutz.
Don’t call it a comeback: MSG’s revival
MSG has been around for over 100 years. While its reputation took a hit from “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, over the last five years or so, the story on MSG has changed.
- Chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, has spent years advocating for MSG and addressing the underlying racial tones when it comes to its criticism. And he’s right – why don’t we hear complaints about MSG regarding Doritos, KFC’s chicken, or Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing (all tasty examples of MSG’s flavor)?
- In 2018, the International Headache Society removed MSG from its list of causative factors for headaches
- In 2020, Ajinomoto, an industry leader in MSG, launched a campaign called “Know MSG” in an effort to set the record straight and educate the public on its safety and culinary benefits.
- In 2020, Merriam-Webster Dictionary identified “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” as “dated, sometimes offensive” and changed the entry to “MSG symptom complex.”
- Food Science Babe, a writer and social media influencer who focuses on the science behind food, has become an advocate for its use and debunking its myths.
- In 2022, the Whole30 Diet announced it would no longer rule out MSG in its off-limits list of additives.
Tell me more
Now that we know MSG is safe and delicious, where can we learn more about it?
- Useful Tips
- MSG Facts
- It works well in dishes with meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, soups, casseroles, egg dishes, gravies, and sauces
- Use ½ tsp of MSG per pound of meat or 4-6 servings of vegetables, casseroles or soup
- Popular brands for MSG seasoning include Ac’cent®, Ajinomoto®, or Vedan
- MSG Facts
- Helpful FAQs and Myth Resources – everything from headaches, to obesity, to allergies.
I hope this article is informative and addresses any concerns you may have around MSG. Now, I challenge you to call BS when you see or hear misguided messages around the tasty seasoning.
- U.S. Food & Drug Admin. Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Jan 2018. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-and-answers-monosodium-glutamate-msg
- Ajinomoto. KnowMSG.com
- Tennant DR. Review of Glutamate Intake from Both Food Additive and Non-Additive Sources in the European Union. Ann Nutr Metab. 2018;73 Suppl 5:21-28. doi:10.1159/000494778
- Ronald Walker, John R. Lupien, The Safety Evaluation of Monosodium Glutamate, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 4, April 2000, Pages 1049S–1052S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.4.1049S
- Halim J, Bouzari A, Felder D, Guinard J-X: The Salt Flip: Sensory mitigation of salt (and sodium) reduction with monosodium glutamate (MSG) in “Better-for-You” foods. Journal of Food Science 2020, 85:2902-2914.
- Wallace TC, Cowan AE, Bailey RL. Current Sodium Intakes in the United States and the Modelling of Glutamate’s Incorporation into Select Savory Products. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2691. Published 2019 Nov 7. doi:10.3390/nu11112691
- Wahlstedt A, Bradley E, Castillo J, Burt KG. MSG Is A-OK: Exploring the Xenophobic History of and Best Practices for Consuming Monosodium Glutamate. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2022;122(1):25-29. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.01.020
- Gore M: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. In Adverse Effects of Foods. Edited by Jelliffe EFP, Jelliffe DB. Boston, MA: Springer US; 1982: 211-223
- Pomitcher, Sam. Dispelling the Danger of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Journal of Young Investigators. 2019. https://www.jyi.org/2019-april/2019/4/1/dispelling-the-danger-of-monosodium-glutamate-msg