For decades, MSG has been embroiled in a whirlwind of misinformation and cultural stereotypes. But studies show that the umami seasoning not only helps food taste better, it's also safe for consumption. We took an in-depth look to debunk all the myths regarding MSG — here's what you need to know.
What Is Monosodium Glutamate — and What Does It Taste Like?
Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG or MSG seasoning, refers to the sodium salt of glutamic acid. The flavor enhancer comes in a white, odorless powder that looks similar to table salt and can help impart a savory or umami taste to a variety of dishes. While it doesn't have much taste by itself, it can help elevate dishes and infuse more flavor when combined with other ingredients.
While MSG is often associated with Asian cuisines — particularly Chinese fast food — it's also found naturally in various foods such as tomatoes, cheese, salmon, and seaweed.
Is MSG Bad for You?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), adding MSG to food is "generally recognized as safe." Though the FDA notes that some people claim to be "sensitive to MSG," scientific studies comparing reactions to MSG and a placebo have not been able to consistently trigger the same reactions in those individuals.
Kantha Shelke, founder of Corvus Blue, a food science and research firm, told Consumer Reports that there is no strong scientific evidence to indicate that MSG is harmful.
For over a century, "MSG has been used safely as an umami seasoning across many different cultures," Dr. Tia M. Rains, vice president of Science, Innovation & Corporate Affairs at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America Inc. told Cheapism via email. Ajinomoto is the world's largest manufacturer of MSG.
MSG's reputation, however, faced challenges due to misinformation. In the U.S., the MSG narrative wasn't solely a health concern; it also bore the marks of racial biases. "MSG has carried an unnecessary stigma for more than 50 years in part because of the racial stereotypes, which has prohibited it from being viewed for what it is — a perfectly safe umami seasoning," said Rains.
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It all started with a letter to the editor published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, explains Rains. According to Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a physician and researcher who penned the letter, he experienced "generalized weakness, palpitations, and numbness," after eating at a Chinese restaurant.
However, Kwok "later acknowledged [that] the symptoms may have been due to any number of ingredients in the meal including sodium, and not necessarily the MSG," writes Rains.
This account birthed the misleading label "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," a tag that would cling to Chinese cuisine and MSG for decades. According to Kelsey Arndt, a registered dietitian based in Phoenix, “MSG is typically associated with highly processed foods, which are already known to have less beneficial effects on health." Arndt told Banner Health that it was therefore "possible that it’s not the MSG alone producing these undesirable side effects.”
The Science Behind MSG
Glutamates aren’t unique to MSG; they're found naturally in salmon, certain cheeses, and even breast milk. "The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from the glutamate naturally occurring in everyday foods," says Rains. "Humans process glutamate the same exact way, regardless of source."
Another common misconception about MSG is that it contains high levels of sodium. However, according to Arndt, it actually has less sodium than regular table salt. “While 1 teaspoon of MSG contains 500 mg of sodium, 1 teaspoon of salt contains 2300 mg,” said Arndt. “Using MSG can help decrease the total amount of sodium intake in our diet, which should be between 1,500 to 2,000 mg per day. And it can help aid in improving the overall nutritional status of the elderly.”
Given the health implications of high sodium intake, which includes an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, using MSG as a flavor enhancer could actually help us achieve a healthier balance, Arndt points out.
The Bottom Line
The story of MSG isn't just about flavor — it's about understanding, acceptance, and debunking myths. As we unravel the intricacies of this misunderstood ingredient, it's important to also identify the cultural misconceptions and racial biases that come with it.
And in case you needed any convincing to indulge in some delicious instant ramen, here's your sign!