Let’s get to the bottom of this (un)savory controversy.
The controversy over MSG, or monosodium L-glutamate, began in the 1960s. Even if you weren’t born yet, you probably heard the rumors that are still circulating today: that MSG is a dangerous and unhealthy chemical added to food. Several decades later, some canned soups still boast about being “MSG-free!” and restaurant menus state proudly that their food contains “No MSG!”
Even if you don’t know what MSG is, because of its reputation, it’s tempting to infer that MSG is just some terrible chemical that must be avoided. This food additive has a fascinating (and problematic) history, and after years of being feared, MSG is begging you to give it another chance.
What Is MSG, Anyway?
“MSG is the sodium salt of the non-essential amino acid glutamic acid,” says Edward Bitok, DrPH, MS, RDN, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Loma Linda University, School of Allied Health Professions. “Although it is found naturally in the body and in a variety of foods, it is often added to savory foods as a flavor enhancer because of its umami taste.”
In 1908, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered that he could extract glutamic acid from a seaweed broth, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Professor Ikeda found that when he added the MSG to other foods, it provided the same savory flavor that he so loved in the seaweed broth.
Today’s MSG is made by fermenting sugar beets, starch, or molasses, according to the FDA. It’s the same process used to make yogurt and vinegar. The glutamate in MSG is still “chemically indistinguishable” from the naturally-occurring glutamate in tomatoes and other glutamate-rich foods.
“MSG is monosodium glutamate, [and] regular salt is sodium chloride,” says Pete White, an IBMS-accredited biomedical scientist for Qured. “Just looking at the chemistry, half of MSG is already found in substantial levels in the body, where it’s needed for absolutely loads of functions, including the creation of brain impulses.”
The MSG Controversy: Here’s How It Started
In 1968, various people reported having serious reactions after eating at Chinese restaurants, including headaches, chest pain, facial pressure, burning sensations, sweating, and respiratory issues. It became colloquially known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” or CRS.
A 1969 article in the journal Science broke the news: They argued MSG was to blame for CRS. The report caused widespread fear that lingered for decades.
Because of this report, MSG is stereotypically associated with Chinese restaurants, and some people avoid Chinese takeout solely because of MSG. This is flawed thinking, however, since MSG appears in the majority of processed foods in the United States.
For example, MSG is an ingredient in:
Canned soups and broths
And fast food fried chicken (yep, including KFC and Chick-Fil-A).
The Truth About MSG
Unfortunately, there’s no black-and-white answer about the health effects of MSG. “Although this belief [that MSG causes adverse health effects] has persisted over the years, numerous randomized double-blind tests have found no good evidence to support this,” says Dr. Bitok.
(One little exception: MSG does not seem to cause adverse reactions in the general population, but it may trigger a reaction in people who are sensitive to additives in general, such as people who get migraines.)
Because of these updated findings, MSG is considered safe for consumption around the globe and approved by the World Health Organization, the FDA, the European Food Information Council, the International Food Information Council, the Food & Agriculture Organization, and more.
The FDA, for example, states that MSG is designated as GRAS—generally recognized as safe—in amounts up to 3 grams. “A typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG,” says Dr. Bitok.
“MSG is actually no more dangerous than regular salt, with excess amounts being filtered out by the body,” says White. “Obviously high amounts can result in symptoms such as headaches, but no more so than other additives.”
Should You Buy MSG-Free Foods?
If MSG gets the OK, why are so many food products and restaurants cutting out the MSG? One word: marketing. Manufacturers know many consumers still fear MSG, and taking it out of their product is a way to stand out.
“More and more manufacturers are taking out MSG from their food products and replacing it with substitutes,” says Dr. Bitok. These substitutes go by other names, such as autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, protein isolate, and more—but they are still MSG. “Usually, for marketing purposes, such foods are accompanied by a ‘no MSG’ label … even though their products contain MSG.”
There’s one fair reason to limit your MSG intake: MSG is an additive, meaning you typically find it in processed foods. MSG might not be a threat to your health, but getting the bulk of your daily calories from hyper-processed foods might be.
Avoiding MSG is one way to keep your diet fresh, low in sodium, and higher in nutrients—but if you’re going to buy chips, there’s no need to go out of your way to buy “MSG-free chips.”
Chinese restaurant syndrome. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001126.htm.)
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Kwok RH. Chinese-restaurant syndrome. N Engl J Med. 1968 Apr 4;278(14):796.
Obayashi Y, Nagamura Y. Does monosodium glutamate really cause headache?: a systematic review of human studies. J Headache Pain. 2016;17:54.
Questions and answers on monosodium glutamate (MSG). U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2012. (Accessed on August 21, 2018 at https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm328728.htm.)
Schaumburg HH, Byck R, Gerstl R, Mashman JH. Monosodium L-glutamate: its pharmacology and role in Chinese restaurant syndrome. Science. 1969 Feb 21;163(3869):826-8.
Scientific evaluations of MSG. International Glutamate Information Service. (Accessed on august 21, 2018 at https://glutamate.org/safety/scientific-evaluations/.)